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Sunday, March 22, 2015

On Mandatory Voting

I think it is a good idea that on Election Day, one day a year, all adult citizens should have what amounts to jury duty in a court of public opinion that puts their country on trial.

Part of what is appealing in Obama's recent floating of this idea is that a campaign for mandatory voting functions rhetorically and organizationally as push-back against the conspicuous anti-democratizing movements of mass voter disenfranchisement (mostly, let's face it, by Republicans who are either white racists or who depend on white-racism to gain and maintain the power they deploy in the service of plutocracy) and the increasing corruption of elections by plutocratic money (by those representatives in both parties who are beholden more to corporate patronage than to the majorities they are elected to represent) but, crucially unlike many of the more familiar and longstanding critiques of and campaigns against these anti-democratizing forces, the mandatory voting proposal is for now unexpected and aggressive, not defensive and reactive, transforming and seemingly simplifying the terms of that struggle, mobilizing new constituencies and provisional alliances, and redirecting the momentum of a stalled debate in the face of urgent dangers.

The hysterical reactions across the reactionary punditosphere and hate-talk archipelago exposes the force of the proposal as much as anything could. That those who are most precarious are also usually the least inclined to participate in a political system that excludes and exploits them even though their shared interests and sheer numbers imply that they would represent a formidable organized political force and would be the greatest possible beneficiaries of change in the direction of equity-in-diversity suggests the radical potential of such a massive mobilization.

Needless to say, as the actually mixed results of this practice in the Australian example to which the President alludes, this proposal is not a panacea, it is not immune to corruption and nonsense -- as if any political process in America could manage that feat. Mandatory voting should be seen in my view as an opportunistic proposal arising in a particular historical juncture, the ultimate impact of which would depend on the education, agitation, organization, legislation that emerged out of its implementation. This is true of any political outcome: politics is interminable and unleashes forces the consequences of which cannot ever be known in advance.

I do not necessarily prefer mandatory voting as a proposal to others that have long been on offer -- election day as a national holiday, same-day registration, automatic registration via the IRS, SSA, DMV, Postal Service, Department of Education, and so on, extensive early voting options, voting-by-mail, nonpartisan commissions for drawing voting districts, instant runoff voting/candidate ranking, exclusive public-financing of all campaigns, limiting the calendar term for election advertizing, nationwide replacement of the electoral college with the popular vote (not to be confused with partisan efforts to make this substitution only in selective states to skew national election outcomes), repair and expansion of the Voting Rights Act, and so on. I do not think one has to choose between these proposals but rather we should embrace the unexpected controversy of the mandatory voting proposal to shift alliances and arguments in ways that might enable other proposals as well. I suspect that the energy attracted by a mandatory voting campaign would re-invigorate these other long-standing proposals and that its implementation would be one of the few forces to break through the impasse and inertia that has long bedeviled these ideas.

I happen not to agree with those who approve of this idea and then insist on the caveat that mandatory voting must always offer a "none of the above" option. I think one of the virtues of mandatory voting should be the inculcation of the insight that voting for a candidate can almost never amount to an endorsement of all that candidate's positions nor should the choice of a representative be understood as a facile identification with that representative. I would like to think that if no-one could evade voting, fewer would indulge the superficial celebritization of politics and more would grasp that representatives are always only the best on offer and must be held accountable by the ongoing vigilance and activism of the citizens who elect them for a time. All of this is to say that mandatory voting seems to me far from a fetishism of voting as the supreme or even an adequate form of political activity (a vision that almost inevitably amounts to an consumerist acquiescence to the status quo) but an occasion precisely for a de-fetishization of voting, a recognition that agitation pushing with or against elected representatives is indispensable to representative politics, and the realization from the universal performance of voting that just as real majorities are competent to vote as citizens so too real majorities are likely competent to run for and hold office as citizens as well.

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