Make Leadership, Not Voting, Mandatory

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

National Journal
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.

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