Reduce polarization with mandatory voting


Data showing Americans’ increased political polarization breathes new life into an old cause: mandatory voting. If the connection between the two isn’t clear, then bear with me.

A new report from the Pew Research Center shows that a growing share of Americans hold increasingly strident ideological views; those views are increasingly far apart; and the people who hold those polarized views are the most likely to vote.

It seems self-evident that this is a problem. Increased polarization means voters elect lawmakers who are increasingly unwilling to compromise, which in turn means Congress can’t react to new problems or deal with old ones. It also means that whichever party wins the White House is all but guaranteed to infuriate the half of the country whose votes it didn’t get, as the demands of each party’s most strident supporters become increasingly irreconcilable.

That toxic mix of legislative gridlock and unpopular executive action leads to deeply imperfect policies and more people tuning out of politics – which in turn leads to still greater polarization, because the only people still willing to vote are those with the most strident views. Oh, and half of the country starts to hate the other half.

If you accept the premise that this is undesirable, you’re left with two options. The first is to try to reverse the polarization. I accept the theoretical possibility of that goal, but have yet to hear anyone make a compelling proposal for how to do it — especially given the desire of the most liberal and most conservative Americans to live near and associate mostly with people who share their views.

That leaves the second option of trying to get more centrist Americans involved in politics. As Pew reports, just 39 percent of those with mixed ideological views say they always vote, compared with 58 percent of those with consistently liberal views and 78 percent with consistently conservative views. Those in the mixed category were also less than half as likely to contact an elected official, and one-third as likely to contribute to a political group.

How do you get the moderate middle more involved? In the long run, maybe you can address some of that differential through better civics classes in school. But let’s not kid ourselves. The U.S. educational system can barely handle what we’re asking of it already.

What are we left with? Two things: We can hope and pray that political polarization goes away. Or we can require that everybody vote.

The progressive argument for mandatory voting is straightforward, if not exactly new. It neutralizes voter suppression. It renders ineffective negative ads designed to depress turnout among your opponents’ supporters. It lets campaigns spend less time and money on voter turnout and more time developing policy. It creates broader mandates for victors. It creates incentives for parties to nominate candidates who are palatable to a greater range of voters. It makes it harder for people to ignore politics.

And mandatory voting doesn’t erode individual rights. Rugged, individualistic Australia is evidence that making people vote doesn’t turn them into blank-eyed automatons.

Moreover, unlike most progressive causes, there’s a reasonably good argument for conservatives to get on board. That’s because without it, the status quo points toward a winner-take-all system where whichever side is in power will do things that half the country can’t stand. And demographic changes mean that conservatives have no reason to think they’re about to start winning the White House again.

Despite all that, I used to think pushing for mandatory voting was a waste of time, as calculated by the difficulty of achieving success compared with the importance of that success. This week’s report makes me wonder if I’ve got the second half of that equation wrong.

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, economics and taxation for Bloomberg View.

© 2014, Bloomberg News

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