Mandatory Voting

At CNN, William Galston of the Brookings Institution advocates mandatory voting, presenting a hypothetical world in which it has the following effects: “Citizens with less intense partisan and ideological commitments flooded into the electorate. Campaigns could no longer prevail simply by mobilizing core supporters….They soon discovered that these new voters preferred compromise to confrontation and civil discourse to scorched-earth rhetoric. Candidates who presented themselves as willing to reach across the aisle to get things done got a boost while zealots went down to defeat.” As a result, tax reform and immigration reform got passed.

Galston does not try to argue that the non-voter is a constituency with a substantive policy agenda, and that if he is forced to vote, politicians will enact this agenda. Instead, as you can see, it is a kind of aesthetic preference for compromise and getting things done as an end in itself that Galston portrays the non-voter as valuing. So if the non-voter doesn’t have an agenda, and current voters are disempowered from having a say in the agenda, who will set the agenda?

What will happen is that if small, connected or organized group of people wants to impose a policy, it will be harder to stop them, because you will need a larger number of people to intensely oppose the policy to make a majority of the expanded electorate. Galston’s estimate is that the electorate increases from 60% to 90% of the population, so instead of needing 31% of the population to care about something in order to stop, you need 46%. The group that benefits will of course be the permanent, bipartisan, “non-ideological” governing class. In other words, William Galston of the Brookings Institution, and his allies in the mainstream (non-Fox News/MSNBC) media.

Why this is a good thing Galston doesn’t say. Naturally he thinks so, and naturally CNN thinks so.

Note that in cases where there is an actual centrist constituency, in a competitive system someone will pursue these people’s votes. We get to 50-50 electoral splits not because people are polarized (50% Marxist, 50% complete laissez faire, for instance; or 50% theocrat, 50% French-style secularist) but because politicians compete for the median voter. Bill Clinton apparently felt compelled to sign welfare reform, and did not think he could get to 50% through appeals to Democratic partisanship or liberal ideology; similarly Bush on Medicare prescription drug benefits. But on some issues, beltway centrists like Galston lack a constituency in the country as a whole, while liberals and conservatives have constituencies, even if they don’t amount to a majority either of the actual electorate or the voting eligible population.
Galston refers to Madison, perhaps an allusion to the Father of the Constitution’s idea that a more extended electorate does more to combat majority factions. But if the question is one of merely numerical extent, surely 100 million voters is more than enough that we’ve reached the point of rapidly diminishing marginal utilities, and have mitigated as far as possible the problems faced by Periclean Athens. Certainly it is a vastly larger electorate than existed at the time of the Founding. Moreover, all the possible effects of territorial extent mitigating faction is already present.

As for Madison’s idea of countervailing factions (“Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests,”)- well, if anyone is part of a faction that could countervail, he is presumably already voting. The idea that we have to rely on faction to counter faction is characteristically Madison, part of his broader approach to institution creation. Madison’s assumed, or concluded, that you couldn’t find people free of factional impulses- faction can only counter faction, ambition can only counter ambition. “As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other.”
Galston’s approach may find us voters who are free of faction due to apathy- their reason is uncorrupted by passions, because they don’t reason about politics at all. But all the Madisonian methods of controlling majority faction are already present in our voluntary electorate. What is weakened under Galston’s approach is the ability to combat minority factions, which Madison assumed a republic would more or less take care of on its own. An apolitical public is more or less the opposite of the republican ideal; it takes us to the monarchical ideal, with a small number of advisers controlling policy.