The time has come to make you vote

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist

Word is that Sean Parker, the 34-year-old Web visionary who built Napster and then helped grow Facebook, is the latest billionaire with an idea to save the political system, or at least a lot of money in search of an idea to save the political system. Parker and other investors are said to be planning a startup aimed at organizing disaffected voters. They've hired some well-connected Washington consultants, because that's what you do when you really want to stick it to the status quo.

This isn't new space, exactly. A few years ago, some moderate operatives in both parties got together and started something called "No Labels," which sends a lot of admonishing petitions to Congress about partisanship and which has the backing of politicians who like to expound on the ugliness of our politics but don't actually want to do anything too controversial.

The truth is that incivility is more a symptom than a sickness; the root cause of our problem is the antiquated system by which we choose our leaders. And if Parker and his high-tech friends really want to "disrupt" our political stalemate in the way they disrupted record labels, then they should consider something more drastic than urging people to get involved. Maybe it's time we coerced them.

Let's first consider the situation in which we find ourselves. Once again this year, the two parties that dominate our politics will conduct parallel campaigns aimed at two distinct subsets of Americans, rather than engaging in any actual debate. One side will scream about liberal overreach and the other will scream about conservative greed and bigotry, and whoever arouses the most passion in their most reliable voters (generally the party out of power at the moment) will probably win.

It wasn't like this when we were a nation that joined and trusted institutions, including political parties. But now that fewer and fewer Americans feel compelled to support their local parties or even register as affiliated, primaries are dominated by an ever dwindling number of hardcore activists, and they're deciding options for the rest of us. And since more than half of voting-age Americans will find those options so uninspiring that they would rather stay home than vote this November, the vast majority of time and money on both sides will be focused on motivating voters who already agree with them.

There are some promising reform ideas out there. Californians have had some success with nonpartisan elections, which bypass the traditional primary system. There's a lot of talk about curtailing all the outside money flowing into campaigns, too – though the Supreme Court is unlikely to cooperate. Taking the responsibility for redistricting away from politicians is a no-brainer for everyone but the parties themselves, which continue to resist it.

But I recently heard a more radical argument from my friend Jonathan Cowan, who runs Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank. Cowan has been kicking around the idea of compulsory voting – or, in other words, a government mandate just like the one that now forces you to buy health care insurance, except it would require everybody to vote.  

I first heard a version of this argument back in 2008, when I gave a series of talks in Australia. The Australians have compulsory voting and they're quite proud of themselves for it, and some of their politicians had fun engaging me in a spirited debate about whose democracy was really more of a model for the world, since they could boast 100 percent voter participation in every election.

The concept struck me then as essentially un-American. After all, as I argued to my Australian friends, part of being a free country is having the freedom to abstain. And anyway, as I rudely pointed out, a country whose Parliament can technically be dissolved by the British queen can hardly go around calling itself a democracy, much less a perfect one.

But Cowan makes a compelling case that compulsory voting in federal elections would actually be the most elegant way to revitalize our democracy overnight, without having to chase a series of piecemeal reforms in dozens of legislatures. Think about it: If voter participation suddenly went from, say, 40 percent in an off-year election to 95 percent (assuming there will always be some slackers and protesters who defy the law and risk the penalty), then the modern industry of voter turnout operations would magically go away.

No more arcane microtargeting and database wizardry. No more overwrought direct mail playing to the most irrational fears of gun owners or xenophobes. No more "base elections" where the only message is that the other guy is a Satan worshipper who will call forth the horsemen of the apocalypse if you let him win.

Suddenly candidates would have to think about ideas again – about how to persuade all of these skeptical, unaffiliated voters that they actually have a plan to govern. The parties would almost certainly open their primaries to independents, if not move entirely to nonpartisan elections, because it would be the only way to make sure their nominees had broad enough appeal to win. Candidates would have to be more responsive to the broad electorate than to the tiny number of wealthy contributors who currently help them get out the vote.

You'd have to decide, of course, whether to tax people who refuse to vote or whether to treat it as a criminal offense, like refusing to register for the draft. (Probably the former, practically speaking.) You'd have to make sure voters could still come to the polls and formally abstain, so there's no violation of free speech. And you'd have to make it a lot easier to vote than it is now, which means extending the voting period well beyond a single day and letting people e-vote from home.

(And before all you professors send me mail again telling me how the Internet can't even protect your credit card, much less protect your vote from Chinese hackers, let me just say: Yes, I know, online voting can never be as failsafe as, say, the days when we trusted some guy in Chicago to count up a box full of paper ballots and take them in his trunk to the county office. But I think we can figure it out.)

You could argue that Parker and his fellow investors would be wasting their time to campaign for something so hard to achieve. It's not entirely clear to scholars who've looked at the issue whether you could impose compulsory voting by statute, which would be pretty hard to do, or whether the Supreme Court would ultimately require a constitutional amendment, which might be nearly impossible.

But there's a value to starting a national conversation about ways to modernize the electoral system, which is long past due. And it's hard to imagine that even Silicon Valley's brightest minds can build a real movement of unaffiliated voters without having at least one big, serious proposal to rally them around.

Is compulsory voting un-American? No more so, now that I think about it, than making people serve on juries for their own civic good – which everyone complains about but no one really resents. I find the argument persuasive, which is more than you can say for our campaigns.