Can Australia save America’s democracy?

Mar 31, 2022
Biden USA.
. Image: Wikimedia Commons

As long as the right to vote is unequally attainable in the United States, full equality for all Americans under the law will be denied.

On April 9, the United States will mark 157 years since the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate armies, to Lt General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union forces. Notwithstanding all the passage of time, all the progress made since the abolition of slavery, all the movement and valor of the struggle for civil rights, all of the sermonizing from the mount of the Lincoln Memorial by Martin Luther King, who just days before he was assassinated intoned, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”: despite all of this, the profound and bitter civil divisions throughout the United States are still founded on race. And at the heart of the struggle over race is the fight over the right to vote.

As long as the right to vote is unequally attainable in the United States, full equality for all Americans under the law will be denied.

This is the point of departure of a new, dramatic, fact-based and thoroughly engaging inquiry into what it will take to both buttress and complete the foundations of America’s democracy: how to attain “100% Democracy” by implementing a system of universal voting throughout the country.

Authors EJ Dionne of the Brookings Institution and Miles Rappaport, a senior scholar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, prosecute the case with an irrefutable indictment penned by author and advocate Heather McGhee.

“Contrary to the lofty goals of the nation’s founding, the actual design of our democracy has created a system that has depressed the participation and influence of communities of color, and is also far less responsive to the needs of all Americans than the democracy we deserve …

“The laws controlling voting have been crafted to undercut the power of people of color, including hurdles to voter registration, restrictions on voting by mail … And the result of these policies has been an anemic level of voting compared to many other countries, and an electorate skewed heavily towards older, whiter, more educated and richer voters. The voices of low- and middle-income people, of all races, are far more faintly heard.”

Dionne and Rappaport posit that every American citizen has an obligation “as a matter of civic duty to participate in the shared project of democratic self-government.” In examining voting practices and participation rates in other democracies around the world, they conclude that it is Australia, with our system of compulsory voting, that is the gold standard for democracy – that the “inalienable rights” of all citizens heralded by the Declaration of Independence are “secured by governments deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’”

If you don’t vote, consent is not necessarily given, and sacred rights are inherently vulnerable to being extinguished.

Voter suppression in America is big business. The only turnout Donald Trump wanted in his two presidential campaigns was from his base. He opposes mail-in voting because “If you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Trump just dis-endorsed a previously-favoured Senate candidate in Alabama because the fellow did not pledge to work to overturn the 2020 election, and to remove President Biden from office and restore Trump to power.

Since the 2020 election, under pressure from Trump’s armies 19 states have enacted laws to restrict voting.

“100% Democracy” is big enough to have two hearts. The first is a deep dive into Australia’s system of compulsory voting, from its adoption in 1924 to how it is practiced today and the virtues of what it delivers, especially in turnout (90%+). The second is how to take the Australian model, plant it in America, and have it flower.

Australia’s model works for three fundamental reasons. Australians do not have to vote – they must simply show up ever polling day and say, “Present!” Dionne and Rappaport are insistent that what Australia requires of its citizens is not “compulsory voting” but “civic duty voting.” We are not forced to vote for anyone. We can deface the ballot in any imaginable manner. But we, as citizens, have to participate because of our obligations as members of Australian society. Why is requiring citizens to show up at the polls more offensive than the government requiring citizens to file income taxes? Honestly, which is more confronting?

Second, if you have to vote, you will inevitably come to conclusion, through some didactic process, especially today from online sources from Google to Tik Tok, that you have to tune in to the election to help decide how to cast your ballot – or write “none of the above” or some epithet on the ballot paper. This nevertheless means that the degree of political literacy among the population is high and embedded in the civic culture.

Third, universal voting promotes cleaner elections. In the United States, most of the money raised and expended (over $US14 billion in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections) is spent by candidates to get their voters out. In Australia, all the voters are already out.  This means that Australian elections are structurally cheaper and freer of special-interest manipulation of the election.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard (disclosure: I served on her staff for 7 years), is a fierce advocate for compulsory voting. In a 2013 newspaper interview, she said, “Compulsory voting is a precious, precious thing and it makes our politics, the politics of the mainstream.”  Gillard told a California audience in 2018: “Australian politics at election time is about capturing the political centre. Small, highly motivated minority groups can campaign but not they cannot disproportionately dictate the result. That mattered for gun control. Even though gun supporters mobilised at huge rallies, politicians knew that the vast majority of voters wanted change and it was delivered. Now I don’t expect compulsory voting to suddenly emerge here in America but I think the moral of the story is big problems can be addressed if the large mass of the community get involved and are all in.”

What is so hard for Americans, with their libertarian streaks (New Hampshire automobile license plates read: “Live Free Or Die”) is the “compulsion” requirement – and the monetary fine on top of it. They choke at it. Force them to show up at the polls and many will reach for their God-given 2d Amendment rights to a gun and threaten to blow your head off because “people have a right not to participate in elections.”

Polling cited by the authors is quite clear on this point: 65% are opposed to civic duty voting; and 74% of those identifying as conservatives are opposed. At the same time, nearly 70% of Americans – and nearly half of Republicans — believe it should be much easier for people to vote.

So how to get there? Dionne and Rappaport urge expanded opportunities to register to vote, such as same-day and automatic registration, such as when you get a driver’s license. Provide more options for voting, such as early voting and vote-by-mail.

They flag critical legislation to update the Voting Rights Act and envision of a national law providing for civic duty voting for presidential and congressional elections.

To get this underway, the authors advocate “local experiments with municipal elections, or statewide experiments in gubernatorial elections.” Indeed, they turn to another pillar of Australian elections – preferential voting, known in America as “ranked choice voting” – and show its growing success by being adopted in several state and local elections, most prominently in the 2021 New York City mayoral contest. From a distance we in Australia could laugh at how the authorities struggled to explain it to the voters, but it ultimately worked, with now-Mayor Eric Adams enjoying a healthy majority win when preferences were distributed from the crowded field.

To really get mandatory voting in the US to take off, I suggest that the breakthrough moment would be for two states, known for their strong culture of civic participation in democratic processes, to adopt mandatory voting for their elections. Perhaps liberal Vermont and conservative Utah – both very cohesive communities who pride themselves on good government (Utah’s governor Spencer Cox recently vetoed a bill targeting transgender athletes) – could together enact civic duty voting as a trial for the nation to absorb and reflect on. If local leaders in those states – open-minded elected officials and those representing, civic, business, faith and other constituencies – could come together, perhaps in a “100% Democracy Convention,” a reform designed to preserve America’s democracy could emerge from its chrysalis.

America is in a heap of trouble. Its democracy is under immense stress. Its democratic institutions are profoundly un-democratic (in today’s Senate, the authors remind us, “The fifty Democratic Senators represent 41 million more Americans than the fifty Republicans Senators.”). It may yet be that Australia can help the United States fulfil Lincoln’s meditation at Gettysburg, in the midst of the Civil War, “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

America should vote for it.

Bruce Wolpe was interviewed for the book, “100% Democracy: The Case For Universal Voting” (The New Press)

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