It is one of the enduring oddities of American politics that one of the two major parties has committed itself to a policy agenda that helps a vanishingly small portion of the population at the expense of the rest. How could the majority party in the House propose a budget ending Medicare—one of the most popular and effective programs in American history? How could they force a budget compromise that includes significant cuts to education and health spending for the middle class?
Part of the problem, as Nobel laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz points out in a new Vanity Fair piece, is demographic. If policymakers support policies that help the top one percent of earners at the expense of the rest of the country, couldn’t part of the reason be that those policymakers themselves are part of the same elite they’re helping? More or less every member of Congress is a top earner upon election, funds his or her campaign with the donations of top earners, and takes a high-salary gig at a lobbying firm or elsewhere upon retirement. Same goes for policy aides in Congress and the White House.
The traditional way to combat this problem is through campaign finance reform. However, the past forty years of reform attempts at a federal level haven’t shown much improvement. There is some evidence to suggest that public funding for elections can reduce the time candidates spend interacting with wealthy donors and increase the time they spend with voters. That said, the programs that work use a “matching funds” approach that the Supreme Court looks set to rule unconstitutional.
This isn’t to say that there couldn’t exist some other possible system that would reduce candidate dependence on donors and withstand judicial scrutiny. But it does suggest that another approach to tackling the problem may be worth pursuing as well. Let me suggest an unorthodox approach: Make voting mandatory.
One reason why higher economic classes’ interests are so overrepresented in government is that rich people vote at disproportionately high rates, and poor people vote at disproportionately low rates. For example, in 2008, people making over $100,000 a year represented 20.5 percent of the population, but 26 percent of the voting population. By contrast, people making under $30,000 a year made up 30.2 percent of the population but a mere 18 percent of voters.
Some might think any increased influence on the part of the rich due to higher voting rates is justified. It was the poor’s choice not to vote, the argument would go, so why shouldn’t they live with the consequences? Putting aside the questionable morality of allowing such significant harm to befall someone due to a single choice, lower voting rates among the poor aren’t just a result of choice.
Voting is expensive. It involves taking time off work, which, if one’s employer isn’t flexible enough to allow paid voting breaks, lower-income people may not be able to afford missing. Voting also involves transportation costs, which, while trivial for wealthier individuals, impose a real cost for others. There are steps the government could take to make it less costly, such as scheduling election days on weekends, setting them as national holidays for which employers must give the day off, or making public transit free during voting hours. But we could also raise the cost of not voting, most effectively by banning it.
We wouldn’t be the first developed democracy to adopt compulsory voting. Belgium and, most notably, Australia both have enforced criminal penalties for not voting. Their systems work fairly well and Australia’s has succeeded in increasing lower and working class participation in politics. Most political scientists believe that compulsory voting adds a few percentage points of support to left-leaning parties, with one study finding it reduced support for conservative parties by 5 percent in the 1996 Australian federal election. Similarly, some back-of-the-envelope math suggests that if all income groups voted in proportion to their percentage of the population in the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama would have beaten John McCain by an even wider margin.
Conservatives could, thus, dismiss compulsory voting as a liberal power grab. But if it’s a power grab, it’s a power grab on behalf of people currently underrepresented in our politics, with the goal of giving all Americans an equal say. Traditionally, we call that kind of system “democracy”, and most people are rather fond of it.
Compulsory voting won’t do enough to combat high earners’ overrepresentation in our politics. Wealthy individuals will still make up most of our elected and appointed government officials, and their campaign dollars will still increase their influence in legislative debates. Mandatory voting is only a small step toward a fairer politics, but it’s a step nonetheless.
Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is currently studying abroad at the University of Cambridge. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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