For the record: this column draws from an article I wrote in 2003 titled Why do we get Dwarfs for Leaders? The Case for Compulsory Voting. At that time I argued that “both political parties have a two part campaign tactic: do everything possible to mobilize your base of core voters while doing everything possible to keep the undecided so bored that they do not bother to vote.” That gave us Donald Trump in 2016. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, 44% of the eligible electorate did not vote, 25.5% voted for Hillary Clinton and 24% voted for Trump, making him President. “I don’t know and I don’t care” really won. The UK’s Brexit referendum showed the same unhappy results: 28% did not vote, 37% voted Leave and 35% voted Remain. At least in the UK, historians will note that almost a third of the electorate led the country to national suicide. In the United States, only a quarter of the electorate voted to end democracy.
Paraphrasing (only slightly) what I wrote in 2003: In 2016 24% of eligible voters put a man whose father’s money allowed him to avoid military service; a man raised in great wealth and a sense of entitlement to believe that the only thing that counts is Number One (himself), in the Oval Office. Today we have a spectacle of a President who has embraced the views of reactionary political ideologues who seek to subvert American democracy and return to a fantasy America where the rich ruled, the poor knew their place, and blacks were only 3/5 human. This same President has managed to break every promise made about fiscal responsibility, free trade and the little man, while leaving our children with a debt that simply defies description. In 2003 I argued that American disaffection with politics grows. This state of affairs requires politicians to campaign through character assassination that titillates an uninformed electorate or by scapegoating minorities to divert blame for their own bad governance.
Too concerned with staying in their seats, ‘liberal’ politicians played along with the ‘conservatives’ because it suited them. To win elections, they let the conservatives undermine labor unions, empower the financial industry to take over the economy, allow income inequality to swell to 1920s proportions. The best that can be said about them is that they got fat and lazy.
To the credit of Joe Biden and the Democratic leadership in 2020, I believe they have learned their lesson. They understand that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election by about 70,000 votes spread over five states, about 0.0003% of eligible voters nationwide. They are trying to get more people to vote and are even prepared to risk more votes for Trump. The Trumpists, on the other hand, believe that a larger turnout will doom their prospects. In desperation, they have launched a voter suppression campaign unseen since the blackest days of Jim Crow. They are eliminating polling places in black and Hispanic districts, purging eligible citizens from voting rolls, imposing restrictive ID requirements. In Washington, DC Trumpists removed the “write-in” option from GOP primary ballots. The President has called for his thugs to intimidate voters at polling places. He ordered his appointees to cripple the Post Office now that Democratic voters have discovered absentee voting, once the ace-in the-hole for Republicans. (Apparently, the lives of people who get their medicines by mail during the pandemic do not bother him.) Even in Ruby Red Texas, GOP leaders terrified of a large turnout have shut down vote collection boxes. One Trumpist Senator trumpeted that “rank democracy” is not important if government can ensure financial well-being. Trump and his Trumpists have subverted the institutions designed to protect democracy. In the last gasp of desperation, Trump seeks to pack the Supreme Court with toadies who will save his Presidency if he loses the voters. Democracy faces an unprecedented threat in the United States.
The Athenians, the Founding Fathers of Democracy, required every citizen to vote and serve in public office or face severe penalties. Democracies survive only when their citizens engage. Americans have an obligation to the country that done so much for us. Restoring civic engagement requires a long-term program to reinvigorate civic values. Unfortunately, in the long term we are all dead (John Maynard Keynes). However, the Biden administration should pursue short-term actions to to strengthen democracy such as expanding voter participation; actions that do not require constitutional amendment A few countries in the world, most of them Western democracies, require all citizens to vote. In such countries voter participation is much higher than in the United States or Britain. Forbes magazine celebrated the fact that 48% of eligible voters voted in the 2018 midterms. That number is a national tragedy, not a cause for celebration. In Australia, newspapers lamented the fact that only (ONLY!!) 91% of eligible voters turned out to vote in 2019. (In Belgium the number was 90%.) Who knows what might happen if voter turnout exceeded 80%? The last time that happened, in 1860, the American people elected Abraham Lincoln.
One simple act of legislation could force states to expand their voter rolls. Currently Congress allocates federal block grants to States by population – a number now threatened by Trump undermining the 2020 Census. The Biden administration should make allocation of federal monies to states according to the number of people who voted. Let their politicians explain to their people why they cannot provide the services Washington funds.