Fixing Politics By Force Won’t Work

Luke Wachob McWethy Fellow, Center for Competitive Politics
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President Obama made comments last week seemingly in praise of Australia’s mandatory voting laws, saying “Other countries have mandatory voting … It would be transformative if everybody voted – that would counteract money more than anything.”

The president is likely correct that more active and attentive voters would make it even harder than it currently is for politicians to betray their constituents’ interests in favor of the positions of financial supporters. Academic research shows that campaign contributions are less predictive of how politicians vote on bills than other factors (“Indicators of party, ideology, and district preferences account for most of the systematic variation in legislators’ roll call voting behavior”), and it stands to reason that more active voters would lead to politicians adhering more closely to voter preferences.

But must we address every issue in politics with more coercion? We are worried about candidates feeling indebted to supporters, so we force them to limit the size of the campaign contributions they can accept. We are worried about corrupt acts being hidden, so we force everyone who spends money speaking about candidates to report their activity to the government, even if all they do is mention a candidate’s name near an election. Now we are worried about slumping participation in politics (gee, I wonder what’s scaring them off), and the president has kind words for forcing everyone to vote.

It’s an awfully bleak worldview compared to the president’s own remarks in the State of the Union Address in January: “A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.”

If only. A politics where campaign contributions are restricted, political activity is surveilled, and voting is mandatory appeals quite a bit more to one’s basest fears than basic decency.

Moreover, if increasing voter turnout and participation is the goal, freeing people to speak more about issues and candidates will lead to a more vibrant debate that brings more people to the polls. Relaxing campaign finance laws, rather than adding another layer of coercion to the political process, is the way to build a better politics.

This is sometimes hard to see for people who follow politics closely. If you like to consume political news, election season can be exhausting. President Obama himself recently told UK Prime Minister David Cameron, “You don’t know how lucky you are not having [political television] advertising.” It’s a common refrain among pundits that heated campaigns with high levels of ad spending “turn off” voters.

But it’s not true. In fact, scholarly research has found that campaign advertising makes citizens both more knowledgeable and more interested in elections. (Per one study, there is “strong empirical evidence to support the notion that advertising can inform and mobilize the citizenry.”) Bemoaning or mocking effective campaign ads and tactics is elitist and counterproductive. Is it really surprising that messages that carry all the way to the median voter often sound boorishly loud and overly simplified to a niche audience of highly educated politicians, pundits, and politically-active citizens? If people are going to participate, they’re going to participate on their own terms. You have to meet them (at least) halfway.

Consider the recent Atlantic article, “The Joy of Voting,” mourning the decline of the United States’ “robust participatory culture of voting” including, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, “parades … raucous street theater, open-air debates, broadsheets and pamphleteering, committees of correspondence, rituals of toasting and fasting and even fighting, festivals and bonfires, and outrageous wagers.”

That’s what it looks like – or used to, anyway – when politics went to the people instead of demanding the citizenry come to them.

Comparing the lively activity that characterized past campaigns to the relative boredom of today’s elections, the author comes away wishing we could do things like we used to. The way to do that is by letting people spend, speak, and associate freely. A wall of campaign finance laws erected to separate money from politics (and insulate incumbents) stands in the way.

The spirit of freedom that defined and invigorated American politics for so many years is sadly absent from the president’s remarks on mandatory voting and from most of our political discourse today. Political elites say they want people to participate in politics more, but only on their (heavily regulated) terms.

That’s a shame. Increasing participation in politics shouldn’t be about prodding people to the polls against their will. It should be about giving people what they want and speaking on their terms.

Luke Wachob is the McWethy Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics, the nation’s largest organization dedicate solely to protecting First Amendment political rights.