Time to consider compulsory voting

Published 9:39 pm Thursday, August 16, 2012

When President Abraham Lincoln took to the speakers’ platform in Gettysburg, Pa., one afternoon in 1863, his words were destined to live in history. I read them for the first time in full inscribed on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, three or four weeks after arriving here last year to live from my native Australia.

As what seems a particularly divisive – speaking from limited experience, of course – presidential election approaches, one passage of the Gettysburg Address stands out: “And that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Almost 150 years later, the U.S. government essentially represents a little more than 57 percent of voting-age Americans, judging by voter turnout during the 2008 Presidential Election, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

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It represents considerably less than half – 38.46 percent – using the 2010 Congressional Election as a gauge.

Historically, turnout has similarly fluctuated between presidential and congressional election years. The largest turnout was in1960, when Kennedy energized Democratic voters and 63.06 percent of voting-age Americans cast ballots.

As a national debate rages over moves by Republican-led states to require photo identification at the polls, perhaps a more pressing issue of electoral reform is not getting the attention it should.

Down Under, once a citizen reaches the age of 18, he or she is required to vote. Failure to do so attracts a $20 fine. If the fine isn’t paid within 21 days, non-voters can find themselves before a court, where the penalty can be raised to $50 and court costs imposed.

Federal elections in Australia occur every three years. Generally speaking, the internally elected leader of the party with the majority of “seats” – the equivalent of Congressional districts – becomes the nation’s leader.

Among the voting-age population, turnout at these elections – always held on the weekend – has consistently been above 80 percent, bar 1955.

Folks who can’t be bothered voting, or don’t like being forced to, express their frustration with invalid votes, which ran at 5.6 percent of ballots in 2010 – very high compared to in the U.S.

There’s room for improvement in Australia’s political system, no doubt. With Queen Elizabeth II the former British penal colony’s monarch, her representative Down Under, the governor-general, can trump the will of the people unilaterally.

This occurred in 1975 when, during a constitutional crisis, Governor-General Sir John Kerr sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Addressing a probably mostly bemused gathering outside Parliament House, a chagrined Whitlam proclaimed words that in Australia are just as famous as Lincoln’s here.

“Well may we say ‘God save the Queen,’” Whitlam said, “because nothing will save the Governor-General!”

Perfection is an ideal and never a reality – especially in politics. But in this country, letting go of the status quo in favor of compulsory voting might mean that folks in Washington, state legislatures and local governments better represent the will of the people.