Political scientists will inevitably get more evidence this fall for a pattern particularly true of midterm elections: People who don't follow politics — and don't have rabid views on the most polarizing topics of the day — tend not to vote. They leave alone at the polls motivated voters with extreme views likely to elect equally extreme politicians who are, as a result, unable to work with each other.
"You have a kind of reinforcement where politicians appeal to more ideologically inspired voters, who then reinforce politicians who respond to them," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I've spent a lot of time thinking and doing research on this problem. It's not easy to interrupt a vicious cycle. It's one of the hardest things to do in life — and certainly in politics."
Galston's solution is a fairly radical intervention: Make everyone vote. If the people who turn up voluntarily at the polls reinforce our worst political instincts toward conflict and obstruction, we could dilute their influence by roping absolutely everyone into the process.
Research, after all, has shown that the American population eligible to vote is considerably more moderate than the subset of people who actually do vote.
"Non-voters look like the classic bell curve," Galston said, if we rate them on an ideological spectrum from left to right (see Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz's new book The Disappearing Center). "That's not what the electorate looks like," he added.
Galston's proposal is, at this stage, more an intriguing thought experiment than anything else. He knows — "America being the kind of viscerally libertarian place that it is" — that the idea would be greeted by many as a gross government invasion of individual liberties. (It's an equally fun thought experiment to ponder how Tea Party patriots would react to a government mandate requiring them to fulfill what is an arguably patriotic duty.)
Galston, though, is convinced the evidence is on his side. Congress has become measurably more polarized over the years, a crisis that consumes countless think-thank hours in Washington. And a significant increase in voter participation would statistically bump up the percentage of self-described moderates in the electorate. "There's just no question there," Galston said.
He even cites evidence that compulsory voting laws work: Australia passed one in the 1920s after officials grew alarmed by what they considered low turnout rates below 60 percent (America's turnout in the most recent midterm election: 37 percent). Today, deterred by a fine the equivalent of a cheap parking ticket, typically 95 percent of Australians show up. Austria, Belgium, Greece and France all have varying versions of compulsory voting, some with enforcement, some without.
This argument — Europeans are doing it! — isn't likely to win over skeptics in the U.S. But at least it shows such policies are logistically possible, Galston says.
"I'm recommending this as an American cure for an American problem," he said. "I'm not saying we should do it because other countries are doing it."
Australia, for one, wasn't particularly aiming to curb partisanship, but to boost participation for the sake of participation itself. As a result, Galston knows of no existing research that verifies his hypothesis correlating high turnout with less dysfunctional political institutions.
This is why he's hoping a couple of states will consider taking on the experiment — maybe some progressive-minded places in the upper Midwest and Northeast. Voting laws in the U.S. are the purview of the states, not the federal government, so such a policy shift would have to occur incrementally (and, ultimately, Galston imagines, through state-by-state shaming).
In Australia in the 1920s, critics warned the idea wouldn't work for two reasons: Voters miffed by the law would spoil their ballots in revenge, and the vast influx of ill-informed and disinterested voters would wrench the outcome from people who actually cared about it.
The first concern never materialized. As for the second, Galston defers to another truth political scientists have long told us about the people who do vote.
"Year after year, there are these depressing findings about what voters know and what they don't," he said. "If you're counting on the electorate for detailed knowledge of the issues, you'll almost always be disappointed."
Even informed voters don't often vote on a rational analysis of the issues. And if you were suddenly forced to the polls on the threat of, say, a $50 fine, wouldn't you pay just a bit more attention to the race in the first place?