College professors often think out loud.
Some do in part to get their students to think.
But when a college professor, especially one schooled in constitutional law who also happens to be President of the United States does it, the comments tend to carry a lot of weight.
It is why it’s curious not much attention was paid to President Obama floating the idea of making it mandatory to vote in the United States during his talk Wednesday on voting rights and campaign finance at the City Club of Cleveland. Obama pointed out countries like Australia have mandatory voting laws. The president added if everyone voted in the United States that it would completely change the political map and be “transformative.” He added it would counteract the influence of money on politics more than anything else.
He also said it would be “fun” to consider amending the United States Constitution to decrease the role of money in elections.
I understand the President’s frustration. It is maddening to see how low the voter turnout has been of late. And I can see how he might take it a bit personal given how he has tried to energize people.
But here’s the rub: The right to vote is a cherished and sacred American birthright guaranteed by the constitution. But at the same time the right not to vote is an important and powerful right as well.
Every Tom, Dick, and Harry country now has a constitution. But few, if any, of those documents are the equivalent or as grounded when it comes to individual freedom and rights as the one that started it all in 1776.
The government mandating that you vote certainly makes it clear the government’s power is more powerful than the individual.
Australia brags about a 95 percent voter turnout.
But it comes at a price.
If you fail to vote, you will receive a notice to pay a $20 fine. If you fail to either pay that in a set time or provide an explanation of why you didn’t vote that the government accepts, you will be hauled into court. Once there, you are subject to a $170 fine and will receive a criminal conviction for your record unless you can argue against the government disallowing the reason you gave for not voting.
And what determines a legal reason for not voting? It isn’t statutory wording. It’s up to the discretion of a government official.
It is essentially a poll tax in reverse. If you don’t vote, you pay a fine.
As for the President’s belief that forcing everyone to vote would counter the influence of money in politics it disregards an obvious possibility: If virtually everyone votes then the temptation will be there to spend even more money to reach everybody. The assumption that campaigns would be limited to the airwaves and social media is naive. The temptation would exist to bring back patronage systems to get people to deliver the votes of marginal voters.
And by marginal voters that refers to people who are now forced to vote simply to avoid being fined $20. It is highly unlikely they will have a huge degree of passion or conviction one way or another to cast a ballot that means not much of anything to them. If it did, they already would be voting.
It might not be as bad as under the Soviet Union where everyone voted and dared not vote except for the communist party candidates but it would still weaken the power of elections.
You are not voting of your own freewill.
Our constitution is rooted deeply in the principles of freewill and self-determination. And while is not a blank check for an individual to do as they please regardless of the impacts on others or society, using the document that Thomas Jefferson helped draft to coerce an individual into exercising rights granted individuals is a twisted and scary application of federal powers.
Maybe the President sees no harm to the American fabric by diminishing the right to vote by making it mandatory.
If that is the case, I’m lucky I didn’t take constitutional law from him in college.
I would have flunked.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.