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Taking Democracy Seriously

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Imagine this dialogue:

American citizen: "So you mean that if you Australians don’t vote, you get a fine?"

Australian citizen: "Yeah, and when you Americans don’t vote, you get George W. Bush."

As surely as politicians lie, citizen apathy produces democracy atrophy. Much more than a right – in a democracy voting is an irrevocable civic duty. No mental gymnastics can help you jump over this ugly reality: Voter turnout in all American elections averages markedly less than half of eligible voters. This disgrace must be fixed.

Here are my proposed solutions: We should make voting mandatory, give voters the option of “none of the above,” make Election Day a national holiday, provide same day registration everywhere, and lower the voting age to 16.

No single reform is a panacea. But together, these five reforms can dramatically re-energize voting in America. They could be placed in one constitutional amendment and ratified by the states in time for the 2008 presidential election. Limiting public support, however, is an elitist mindset among people with political power, wealth and intellectual arrogance. They wrongly dismiss large numbers of citizens for their lack of education or political involvement. Electoral reforms can create a culture of voting that ultimately produces a more informed public.

Mandatory Voting

This is not a radical idea. Over 30 countries have compulsory voting. Violating the law usually merits something akin to a parking fine, but it still works. When Australia adopted it in 1924, turnouts increased from under 50 percent to a consistent 90-plus percent. Conversely, when the Netherlands eliminated compulsory voting in 1970, voting turnouts plunged from 90 percent to less than 50 percent. Polls regularly show 70 percent to 80 percent of Australians support mandatory voting. Research found that people living in countries with compulsory voting are roughly twice as likely to believe that their government is responsive to the public’s needs and 2.8 times as likely to vote as compared to citizens in countries without compulsory voting. Is compulsory voting inconsistent with personal freedom? No! We have compulsory education, jury duty, and taxes that are more onerous than voting periodically. And all people have to do is turn out to vote. What they do with their secret ballot is up to them.

Counting Dissatisfaction

When people can officially say with their ballot that none of the candidates is acceptable, it makes compulsory voting more palatable. In turn, it can increase voting for ballot initiatives and measures. And it is better than lesser-evil voting that has become all too common, because of the two-party stranglehold on our political system. It beats so-called “Mickey Mouse” voting, whereby people write in frivolous names. Nevada offers the None of the Above option, though the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins. Yet protest votes are counted, sending a message to parties and politicians.

Election Day Holiday

Standing in a long line to vote often loses out to being at work or doing other things typical of work and school days. Long commute times add to peoples’ time poverty. On a holiday, voting would be more evenly spread out throughout the day and could be held at more places. It would be easier to recruit the best qualified poll workers, and government costs would be reduced because of shorter hours. A national holiday also sends an important message: Voting is critically important and something to be celebrated. Opinion surveys have found that 60 percent or more favor making Election Day a holiday. The National Commission on Federal Election Reform made a strong case for this action. Like others, the commission backed moving Veterans’ Day to coincide with Election Day. The holiday might be called Veterans’ Democracy Election Day. Most Western democracies hold elections on either holidays or weekends. In Puerto Rico, people are given the day off and voter turnouts are typically over 80 percent. Early and absentee voting attack some problems. But a national holiday that celebrates the sacred duty of voting by all eligible voters makes more sense. Voting should become more of a social, community activity, bringing Americans together, rather than something done as quickly as possible to get it over with.

Same Day Registration

At least 30 percent of eligible voters do not vote because they are not registered. It makes no sense to make registration onerous. It should be done automatically, once voter rolls are established and once citizens show up the first time to vote and present residence and citizenship qualifications, as required. Same day registration has been used successfully in some states for about 30 years. Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, Idaho, Wisconsin, Montana, Connecticut, and Wyoming use this approach. North Dakota abandoned registration entirely in 1951. Five of these states have the highest voter turnout in the country. When Montana used it for the first time in 2006, voter turnout jumped from the usual 50 percent to 70 percent. With more same day registration it is appropriate to have more safeguards against all forms of voter fraud, especially registering non-citizens.

Youthful Citizens

We place no upper age restriction on voting, even though some elderly people have reduced mental capabilities, and are often taken advantage of by get-out-the-vote efforts of the two major parties. Our political system is deciding the future for our younger citizens. On fairness alone, balancing a large over-50 voting bloc with younger citizens is justified. Youths age 16 to 18 pay substantial taxes, are often treated as adults in criminal cases, have definite interests impacted by public policy, and in some states can marry and obtain a driver’s license. Being in high school is an advantage, because there is more stability and time to build a habit of voting. Considering our Information Age, lowering the age to 16 makes perfect sense. What happens between ages 16 and 18 to make younger citizens more qualified to vote? Nothing. There is a movement to register 16-year-olds, but making them wait until 18 to vote is plain silly. New, younger voters can help make voting a patriotic family activity on the new national holiday.

Countries using this lower age include Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Isle of Man, and movements for doing so are strong in Britain, Canada and many more. In Germany, a greater proportion of 16 and 17-year-olds voted than those aged 18 to 35 – and twice as many as those in their later 20s – in municipal elections in Hanover. In local elections in Vienna, Austria, 59 percent of 16- to 18-year-olds cast a ballot, about the same as other age groups. Rather than starting wars to spread democracy, America could lead a global surge in voter entitlement. This is what populism is all about.

A Constitutional Necessity

Voting is the heart of a healthy democracy. With our persistent low voter turnout, the heart of American democracy is barely beating. The decline of American democracy is both a cause and consequence of low voter turnout. Low voter turnout makes a mockery of representative democracy. Most politicians get elected with – at best – not much more than 25 percent of eligible voters. This may explain why bought-and-paid-for politicians mostly represent corporate and other special interests. Hefty political contributions by less than 1 percent of adults trump voting.

Face facts. Incremental and piecemeal attempts at electoral reforms have failed. Why? Because those in power do not want across-the-board high voter turnout. Shame on them. And shame on us for letting Democrats and Republicans get away with using costly means to get out their base supporters. This perpetuates divisive partisan politics that entertain and anger Americans rather than serve them – 70 percent of whom are centrists. If you don't believe this, go to www.foavc.org.

Now is the time for one bold constitutional amendment that can grab public attention and move the nation forward. If Congress is too cowardly to propose the amendment, then we need two-thirds of state legislatures to request an Article V Convention for this purpose; to learn more about this never-used constitutional right go to
Let us begin by urging members of Congress and 2008 presidential candidates to take a public stand on electoral reforms. Will Democrats and Republicans walk the talk of cooperation for the good of the nation?

Abraham Lincoln spoke of government "of the people, by the people and for the people.” If you really believe this, then speak out to increase voter turnout to resuscitate America’s half-dead democracy.

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About Joel S. Hirschhorn

Formerly full professor Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, and senior official Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and National Governors Association. Author of four nonfiction books and hundreds of articles.
  • Clavos

    Some good ideas, especially mandatory registration, counting dissatisfaction, and same day registration with proper ID.

    I’m not sure about letting 16 year olds vote.

    I’m surprised you didn’t address the idea of voting online: did I miss it?

    Good article, and a theme which very much needs exposure and discussion.

  • I know some people want to see more voting by mail or even online. But one reason why I wrote about making Election Day a national holiday is to make voting a social, family and community activity that brings people out of their home-based social isolation to mingle and talk with others about voting, politics and government. We need a lot more old-fashioned conversations as politically engaged citizens.

  • Clavos

    Fair point.

    It would be nice to have a choice, however.

  • moonraven

    When they start COUNTING ALL the votes–instead of just throwing away those that aren’t convenient (they never count any absentee ballots), I might consider voting again.

  • Mohjho

    Didn’t Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin implement mandatory voting?

  • Sisyphus

    Yes, voting is mandatory in Australia, where politics and politicians are no better than in the U.S. After all, mandatory voting resulted in the Aussies’ current PM, John Howard. I rest my case. 🙂

  • Clavos

    After all, mandatory voting resulted in the Aussies’ current PM, John Howard. I rest my case. 🙂

    Does Aussie mandatory voting also mandate who one votes for, too?

  • Sisyphus

    “Does Aussie mandatory voting also mandate who one votes for, too?”

    Of course not, which is sort of my point. Forced voting doesn’t equate to a more informed electorate. On the contrary, where voting is voluntary, at least theoretically, the voters have an interest in the issues and candidates or they wouldn’t be voting. Mandatory voting almost guarantees a less informed vote.

  • Clavos

    Mandatory voting almost guarantees a less informed vote.

    Or it might stimulate the public to become more informed and take a greater interest.

    Either way, it will tend to reduce the effect of a small group forcing their agenda on the entire population.

  • troll

    I (almost) would go for mandatory participation if ‘none of the above’ were put on all ballots as suggested by the author as a meaningful option requiring a new nomination process and re-vote if ‘none of the above’ gets the majority of votes…

    further – IMO mandatory participation is desirable as it would clarify a ‘no vote’ as an act of civil disobedience

  • Clavos


    Agree on both your points, troll (!!)

  • moonraven

    Nobel Laureate José Saramago wrote a book a couple years ago called AN ESSAY ON LUCIDITY–in which folks voted in blank en masse. They called new elections and it just continued to happen. A very interesting read by a writer with an uncommon grasp of politics.

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    In my honest opinion, mandatory voting should really be coupled with a preferential system. If you have a “no vote” box at the bottom, then voting is just a nuisance for those less interested.

    However if you have preferences, then that means that people can either drop it in the box without ticking anything, or their vote can count when their particular candidate doesn’t actually get through.

    From what I’ve seen, this leaves the public weighing up different parties and politicians in comparison. And it means that the major parties have to compete for the prefs of the minors.

  • STM

    Clav: What does happen with mandatory voting is that the two main parties are less polarised. They don’t have to manufacture issues to get the attention of voters. Voting is also preferential, rather than first past the post … the Liberals are at the bottom of the pile on my ballot card when I vote. That means you can have two choices: if I want to register a protest vote, I’ll vote for an independent or another party that will at least give its preferences to Labor, so I know it hasn’t been wasted in the final wash-up. Yes, people do become more informed about the political process – but they become more informed about the real issues rather than things that have been manufactured to win votes.

    You also don’t have to vote. You can go to a polling station, have your name crossed off the electoral list as having voted, and put in an informal vote if you wish. It’s not a perfect system, but it works for us. Can’t see it happening in the US, though, what with all those arguments about Constitutional rights, 1st amendments and the like 🙂

  • STM

    And I’ll add to this … my view on compulsory voting and the benefits: democracy isn’t just a right, it’s a privelege, and carries certain responsibilities in return. One of those is to vote.

  • Clavos

    One of those is to vote

    That, and helping in the defense of your country (assuming real need), are the two most important obligations of citizens in free societies, IMO.

  • Sisyphus

    Clavos: “That, and helping in the defense of your country (assuming real need), are the two most important obligations of citizens in free societies, IMO.”

    Yes, comparing mandatory voting to the draft is an interesting analogy.

  • STM

    Yes, I agree totally. It’s what constitutes time of need that’s always the bugbear, though.

  • troll

    Nationalism Blows

  • STM

    Blows what? Or who?

  • STM

    Calling Clavos: mate, with summer coming up, would you like me to send you your very own genuine Slouchie, BTW? There would be only one caveat – don’t wear the bastard with the side folded up.

  • troll

    dead bears

  • jaz

    for troll in #19

    imo, ANY -ism, -ology or hyphenated-American is bullshit

    that’s why it’s called Reason…

    but i digress

  • STM

    BTW Joel, as I’ve expressed to other commentators, I agree with the premise that America is no longer a genuine democracy … it’s now just an amorphous political system that exists only for those who can afford to subsidise or lobby politicians – many of whom want the power and prestige that goes with public office but not the responsibility that goes with truly representing their constituents.

  • jaz

    ummm…sorry to be picky…but the U.S. has NEVER been a democracy

    we’re a representative Republic…thank you very much…elected with democratic process

    minus five from your term paper, Stan


  • STM

    Jaz … which makes you a democracy as well, supposedly in the truest sense of the word. We ARE being picky today aren’t we. I get three points back for that.

  • jaz

    fair dinkum, cobber

  • Put some teeth in this! Vote, or lose your citizenship and get deported. Forget the namby-pamby parking ticket fines.

    Don’t worry, I’m only serious. It would be fun to see how the xenophobic anti-immigrant crowd would react to such a proposal. Might distract them from all their efforts to make everybody irrationally scared of the Arabs and the Hispanics, even as they hide behind an ostentatious claim of concern for the rule of law.

    But getting back to these proposals, which we could start referring to as the Hirschhorn Plan, I think they’d stand a fair chance of revitalizing participatory democracy in the United States.

    Of course, that’s exactly why they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting passed. The last thing today’s ruling class ever wants to see is a resurgence of truly participatory governance. The only thing they want us to vote on is who gets to “win” the next season of American Idol, and they’d probably prefer it if the great unwashed could be excluded from having any influence over that, too.