What's the big idea?

Could mandatory voting make politics less polarized?

By Kate Julian
Sunday, May 30, 2010

To the short list of life's certainties (death, taxes), William Galston wants to add one more: voting.

In a report to be released Tuesday, the Brookings Institution scholar argues that to combat the nation's growing political polarization, a few willing states should experiment with compulsory voting. Meaning, if you don't vote, you pay.

How, exactly, is the threat of a fine supposed to make our cranky electorate less divided? Right now, Galston asserts, those who are motivated to vote tend to be disproportionately discontented and, not coincidentally, disproportionately partisan. Meanwhile, those who are less angry (read: more moderate) don't feel they are well represented by the system, so they stay home. But the more they stay home, the less attention politicians pay to them.

What if we could break this vicious circle by nudging these people -- those who are less moved by anger and loathing -- to vote? For one thing, Galston writes, politicians' habit of "continually tossing red meat to the party faithful might become a little less pervasive."

Of the 31 countries that have compulsory voting laws, Galston is most inspired by Australia, where anyone who doesn't vote is fined $20 or even $50 -- and where the turnout rate hovers around 95 percent. If Australia (a country "not all that different from the United States in its freewheeling spirit, in its love of individual liberty" and, as Galston delicately put it to me, "not known for compliance or respectful attitudes toward authority") can get with such a program, maybe there's hope for us.

Which states might be persuaded to spearhead this admittedly radical experiment? For starters, those of the upper Midwest. "I can imagine the good citizens of Wisconsin saying, 'We'll give this a shot,' " Galston told me, "and maybe Minnesota, since they have a pretty robust independent third-party tradition, anyway. And I can even imagine a place like my home state of Connecticut giving it a whirl." Where would it flop? "Somehow," he admits, "I think this would go down less well in the more libertarian parts of the Sunbelt."

Have a contender for the Big Idea? Let us know at outlook@washpost.com.


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