Make Leadership, Not Voting, Mandatory

On voter apathy and big money, Obama has the right diagnosis and the wrong cure.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
Add to Briefcase
Ron Fournier
March 19, 2015, 9:07 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama is like the half-baked doc­tor who dia­gnoses what’s wrong with you and pre­scribes the wrong medi­cine. Good call, bad doc­tor. Take two ma­jor ails of the U.S. polit­ic­al sys­tem:

1. De­clin­ing voter par­ti­cip­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly among young and minor­ity voters who are most likely to feel dis­en­fran­chised.

2. An un­healthy ap­proach to fin­an­cing cam­paigns after Cit­izens United, the Su­preme Court rul­ing that out­lawed re­stric­tions on polit­ic­al spend­ing.

Obama’s pre­scrip­tion? Force every­body to vote.

(RE­LATED: Should D.C. Be More Ivy-Less?

“In Aus­tralia, and some oth­er coun­tries, there’s man­dat­ory vot­ing,” the pres­id­ent said Wed­nes­day in Clev­e­land, where he ad­dressed middle-class eco­nom­ics. “It would be trans­form­at­ive if every­body voted—that would coun­ter­act money more than any­thing.”

Trans­form­at­ive how? Coun­ter­act money in what way? “The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower in­come, they’re skewed more heav­ily to­wards im­mig­rant groups and minor­ity groups,” Obama said.

Oh, so it would be trans­form­at­ive in the sense of help­ing the Demo­crat­ic Party? In oth­er words, this is a par­tis­an play. “There’s a reas­on why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.”

“Some folks” is code for Re­pub­lic­ans who ex­ag­ger­ate the threat of fraud to make it harder for minor­ity and young voters (code for Demo­crats) to cast bal­lots. While voter sup­pres­sion and vot­ing in­teg­rity are im­port­ant is­sues, the real dis­ease is voter apathy.

(RE­LATED: When Did Two Wrongs Make It Right?)

Nearly half of all eli­gible voters blew off the 2012 pres­id­ent elec­tion, an abysmal turnout by his­tor­ic­al and glob­al stand­ards. Turnout for last year’s midterm elec­tions was the worst in more than 70 years.

No, Mr. Pres­id­ent: “Some folks” didn’t force mil­lions of po­ten­tial votes to stay home. Most Amer­ic­ans don’t think their votes mat­ter. Don’t think their lead­ers listen. Don’t think the in­sti­tu­tions of polit­ics and gov­ern­ment have ad­ap­ted to the times. And, sadly, they’re right.

The proof is self-evid­ent: Voter sup­pres­sion is a sanc­tioned policy of the GOP, and the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent’s best an­swer to voter apathy is to shift re­spons­ib­il­ity (and, pre­sum­ably, blame) to the people: Make them vote!

How about giv­ing Amer­ic­ans something worth vot­ing for? In 2008, when Obama and the coun­try still had the au­da­city to hope for change, turnout skyrock­eted to nearly 62 per­cent. Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress pledged to see him fail and he did. The found­ing prom­ise of his pres­id­ency was squandered.

Shame we can’t make lead­er­ship man­dat­ory.

As for cam­paign money, Obama didn’t ex­plain how 100 per­cent turnout would “coun­ter­act money.” Nor did he ex­plain how man­dat­ory vot­ing would di­lute the power of spe­cial in­terests who buy ac­cess to the pres­id­ency and Con­gress. He ob­vi­ously hasn’t thought this through.

People who do think ser­i­ously about the in­flu­ence of polit­ic­al money agree with Obama that the status quo is un­ac­cept­able. The typ­ic­al law­maker in Wash­ing­ton spends a third of his or her time rais­ing money. Most of the money comes from a re­l­at­ively small circle of spe­cial in­terests who de­mand and get fa­vors.

Few voters are rep­res­en­ted by a spe­cial in­terest. Their rep­res­ent­at­ives are in the pock­et of spe­cial in­terests.

One op­tion is to over­turn Cit­izens United in some fu­ture Su­preme Court or by con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment. That’s not likely to hap­pen soon, and, even if it did, the 1990s proved that spend­ing lim­its are por­ous.

A bet­ter op­tion is to en­act post-In­ter­net re­forms, such as re­quir­ing im­me­di­ate elec­tron­ic dis­clos­ure of all polit­ic­al dona­tions. Bet­ter yet, give or­din­ary people the abil­ity to raise gobs of money that ac­tu­ally coun­ter­act spe­cial-in­terest dona­tions. One in­ter­est­ing idea comes from Rep. John Sar­banes, a lib­er­al Demo­crat from Mary­land who is try­ing to tap left- and right-wing pop­u­lism.

He would cre­ate a small-donor match­ing sys­tem that gives reg­u­lar Amer­ic­ans—and the can­did­ates they sup­port—an av­en­ue to win­ning elec­tions out­side the tra­di­tion­al big-money sys­tem.

His bill would provide a $25 tax cred­it for small cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, which could be matched 6-to-1 for can­did­ates who agree to for­sake polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tees and self-lim­it their dona­tions at $1,000. The match­ing money would come from tax check-offs and a fund cre­ated by clos­ing tax loop­holes on spe­cial in­terests who be­ne­fit from the cur­rent sys­tem.

Sar­banes en­vi­sions a time when a cop or a plumb­er or a fact­ory work­er in­vites 30 of his or her friends to a house party in hon­or of a neigh­bor run­ning for of­fice. Each pal donates $50 and gets half of it back. The total is $1,500, which the neigh­bor/can­did­ate matches 6-to-1 for $10,000.

Ten thou­sand dol­lars is how much a can­did­ate gets today at a typ­ic­al spe­cial-in­terest fun­draiser.

I can see you rolling your eyes. Pub­lic fin­an­cing? The GOP will nev­er go for it. Vol­un­tary tax check-offs? They nev­er work. Di­lute spe­cial in­terests? Right, like that has ever happened.

All true, and Sar­banes knows it. He ac­know­ledges that his bill, sponsored by 142 Demo­crats and one Re­pub­lic­an (Rep. Wal­ter Jones of North Car­o­lina) is a par­tis­an long shot un­til an event or move­ment comes along to ig­nite and unite pop­u­lists in both parties —a scan­dal, a change in House lead­er­ship, or a change in state and loc­al gov­ern­ment lead­er­ship. Post-In­ter­net pop­u­list up­ris­ings are sud­den and un­ex­pec­ted, Sar­banes said, “and we’ll be ready for it.”

“Lots of people have fled the polit­ic­al town square and gone off in­to the hills,” Sar­banes told me. “We need to do something to bring their voices back in­to the sys­tem, to bring them down out of the hills and back in­to the pub­lic square.”

This rhet­or­ic of a lib­er­al Demo­crat fits nicely in any Re­pub­lic­an’s stump speech, be­cause if there’s one thing that unites red and blue Amer­ica, it’s dis­il­lu­sion­ment. “We’re not lim­it­ing speech,” he said, “we’re adding to it. We’re adding the people’s voice to it.”

Dis­il­lu­sion­ment is a can­cer on the body polit­ic. The cure will be dis­rupt­ive, even pain­ful, but the status quo is ter­min­al.

What We're Following See More »
Byrd Rule Could Trip Up Health Legislation
10 hours ago

"Even if House Republicans manage to get enough members of their party on board with the latest version of their health care bill, they will face another battle in the Senate: whether the bill complies with the chamber’s arcane ... Byrd rule, which stipulates all provisions in a reconciliation bill must affect federal spending and revenues in a way that is not merely incidental." Democrats should have the advantage in that fight, "unless the Senate pulls another 'nuclear option.'”

Senate Votes To Fund Government
1 days ago
House Passes Spending Bill
1 days ago

The House has passed a one-week spending bill that will avert a government shutdown which was set to begin at midnight. Lawmakers now have an extra week to come to a longer agreement which is expected to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in September. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass before President Trump signs it.

Puerto Rico Another Sticking Point in Budget Talks
2 days ago

President Trump’s portrayal of an effort to funnel more Medicaid dollars to Puerto Rico as a "bailout" is complicating negotiations over a continuing resolution on the budget. "House Democrats are now requiring such assistance as a condition for supporting the continuing resolution," a position that the GOP leadership is amenable to. "But Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism aligns him with conservative House Republicans inclined to view its request as a bailout, leaving the deal a narrow path to passage in Congress."

Democrats Threaten Spending Bill Over Obamacare
2 days ago

Democrats in the House are threatening to shut down the government if Republicans expedite a vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, said Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer Thursday. Lawmakers have introduced a one-week spending bill to give themselves an extra week to reach a long-term funding deal, which seemed poised to pass easily. However, the White House is pressuring House Republicans to take a vote on their Obamacare replacement Friday to give Trump a legislative victory, though it is still not clear that they have the necessary votes to pass the health care bill. This could go down to the wire.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.