In Australia, the threat of fines or jail ensures that most people - more than 90 percent - show up to the polling booth. Everyone may not like the inauguree - but at least she or he has a mandate to govern.
As a visiting faculty member at the University of Melbourne who specializes in American politics, I have been asked to give a number of talks to Australian student and civic groups about the recent United States presidential election.
Many Australians express shock and amazement at the low voting turnout in the United States. Meanwhile, even as I type this, people around the world are literally dying in the streets because they think so highly of the right to vote.
As Americans install President Clinton in office - for the second time - we might want to remember that fewer than 50 percent of us participated in his selection. Only in the United States can so few people be bothered to exercise the democratic franchise.
Mandatory voting in US?
Given our low voting turnout, mandatory voting, the practice in Australia, might not be such an outlandish idea for the United States. The notion of compulsory voting is based on the idea that everyone must participate in elections for democracy to work. Being a good citizen is not just a matter of paying taxes or not breaking the law. Being a good citizen means actively choosing who will represent you in government.
Of course, not everyone agrees. A Melbourne newspaper, The Age, recently broke the story of a Queensland man who was actually jailed for refusing to vote. Although the man is no longer in jail, he has gone on a hunger strike and has stopped taking his medication because he opposes the principle of compulsory voting. He also has said he thinks that all political parties are hopeless.
Miss a vote, get a fine
Australian jails are hardly overrun with otherwise law-abiding citizens who happened to have missed an election. Rarely are people jailed for not voting - but those few who miss elections are fined. Whether they cannot afford not to vote or whether they are unusually civic-minded doesn't really matter. The man from Queensland was finally jailed because he had already been fined multiple times because of his long history of missing elections.
Moreover, the Australian government cannot force someone to actually cast a ballot - although most do. A person can show up to the polling booth and not write anything on the ballot, or cast a vote for Mickey or Minnie Mouse. But the threat of fines or jail helps ensure that most people actually do show up to the polling booth, regardless of whether they vote for a legitimate candidate, "None of the Above," or even Skippy the Kangaroo.
After reading the story of the Queensland man, I began to think about what would happen in the United States if we followed the Australian example. Would mandatory voting make us more content with the officials we elect? Probably not. But, more important, it would legitimize the choice.
When more people don't vote than vote for an American president, as was the case with Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Reagan, to name only a few, the winner is deprived of the legitimacy of knowing that a majority of citizens has given him a mandate to govern. No one has given a United States president or political party such a mandate since Lyndon Johnson was elected in 1964. Since then the presidency and the Congress have been held by different parties - hardly a mandate - or fewer than 50 percent of voters have even bothered to vote.
Imagine the revenue
If the United States followed the Australian example of imposing penalties for not voting, it is mind-boggling to imagine how much revenue the government could raise by fining each nonvoter something like $50 (slightly less than the Australian fine). It would probably be enough to balance the budget within several years!
Having a budget surplus might inspire nonvoters to become voters. They might decide that they would like to have a voice about how to spend all the money their previous lack of civic responsibility was able to raise.
No one wants to go to jail
If we found that we had a number of people who paid their fines but still did not vote, we might want to consider the jail option. I imagine that the fear of going to jail, which would hang over the heads of so many Americans, would greatly enhance public support and public dollars for the building and staffing of more humane prisons.
While in prison, these nonvoters - presumably among them teachers, doctors, attorneys, secretaries, telephone repair people, police officers, and even politicians - might make a substantial and positive contribution to the prison population. And once out of jail, freed nonvoters would probably decide to vote - the best result of all.
* Iva Ellen Deutchman is associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., and senior lecturer in American studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.