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We the (Off-Year) Voters

Election Day in Ohio was a closely watched event, driven by a controversial referendum on a new law limiting union rights for teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees. The law was handily repealed, helped by the state’s highest voter turnout in 20 years for an off-year general election. And that exciting swell amounted to all of 46%.

It was even more depressing in other areas around the country. Philadelphia re-elected Michael Nutter as its mayor with just a little more than 18% of registered voters going to the polls — less than one in five voters bothering to decide who should run their city for another four years.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear won his re-election with 28% of the registered voters in his state going to the polls, and that was slightly higher than the secretary of state had predicted. Talk about the tyranny of low expectations.

And in Houston, only 8.8% of the city’s 1.9 million voters cast a ballot in a school board election in which Manuel Rodriquez won his seat by a margin of 24 votes. This upset some folks because Rodriquez had run a last-minute campaign advertisement noting that his opponent was a gay man, but obviously this wasn’t important enough to persuade the other 91.2% to vote.

It’s too facile to blame these dismal turnout numbers only on lazy, apathetic voters. The nation is rife with structural and political impediments to voting that are actually meant to deter higher turnout, at least of less desirable Americans — that is, those who are poor, young and minority. We’ve done away with poll taxes and other forms of outright intimidation, but too many states and municipalities still make it difficult to vote, and some are seeking to make it even more difficult. As the 2012 presidential race begins in earnest, we will write more about that.

But now, when Americans deeply distrust their government and to some extent each other, it’s time to dust off a provocative idea: mandatory voting. William A. Galston, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, made the case recently in The New York Times, and it’s more compelling than you might realize. “Requiring people to vote in national elections once every two years would reinforce the principle of reciprocity at the heart of citizenship,” he wrote.

He also argues that mandatory voting is (small d) democratic, evening out disparities stemming from income, education and age and “enhancing our system’s inclusiveness.” And it could be an effective bullwark against the increasing polarization now defining political life, especially when gerrymandered legislative seats are made to be so safe that voting strikes many as irrelevant.

Galston’s strongest analogy is Australia, a nation that has a similar individualistic streak and adopted mandatory voting in 1924. “Here in Australia, where we love freedom as much as anyone else, we have a mandatory voting regime that is well managed, corruption-free, easy to access, cheap to run and has an approval rating of more than 70 percent,” Lisa Hill, a professor of politics at the University of Adelaide, wrote in an online debate on the Times website.

Galston’s proposal wouldn’t apply to off-year elections, and even he admits it could face strong challenges by states that, after all, are constitutionally mandated to set voting standards and practices. But it should not be dismissed. In fact, it should be held up as a threat, a last resort to the politicians who have created a system that discourages voting, and to the all-too-many citizens who allow it to go on.

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