The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

July 9, 2010
Mandate voting to moderate the electorate?

Off-year elections attract fewer voters as rule. About 34 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the June primary. And if history is a guide, somewhere between 50-55 percent will vote in the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election. Some observers worry that those who participate in off-year elections are often positioned on the extremes of the ideological spectrum and so tend to elect candidates on the extremes. The result is a polarized, disfunctional government.

Electing more moderate people was the motive behind California's recently approved Proposition 14, the Top Two Open Primary Act. But one Brookings researcher has an even more radical solution to the problem of a polarized electorate: simply mandate voting for all eligible adults. William Galston argues that non-voters tend be more moderate than the "passionate partisans" who dominate many elections. Increasing voter turnout, he says, evens out the politics and prompts candidates "to appeal broadly beyond their partisan bases". 

Galston acknowledges that mandatory voting runs counter to the libertarian streak in American culture and wouldn't be popular in the U.S. Even so, it has been used in a number of countries, including Belgium, Austria, France and Greece. Australia, for example, passed such legislation in the 1920s when voter turnout fell to 60 percent. Today -- spurred by a modest fine -- Australians go to the polls at a rate of 95 percent.

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