Barack Obama this week proved presidents are unwise to muse in public. At an event in Cleveland on Wednesday, he thought out loud about how the neighborhood would be more beautiful if everyone voted. Perhaps we should make voting mandatory like Australia, said the Muser in Chief.
Fired upon by the right and the left, it was White House down. The Boss was disavowed faster than Secret Service agents ramming the gates. “The president was not making a specific policy prescription for the United States,” said press secretary Josh Earnest.
But the whole tempest – which teapots are wont to have – got me wondering what effect mandatory voting might have in Texas, a state with a woeful history of voter turnout.
First, The Washington Post produced a map of what Texas and the rest of the nation might have looked like in the 2012 election if mandatory voting had been in place. You’ll notice that Texas, a Republican red state for the past two decades, suddenly turns Democrat blue.
That’s not so far-fetched. Gallup for a number of years has done a survey in the states of adult residents, not voters, and found Texas leans 50-50. Gallup lists Texas as “competitive.” After the drubbing Democrats took in last year’s election, even Battleground Texas is finding this a difficult sale, as Robert Draper reported in Texas Monthly.
And yet the musings of a president are the kind of thing that keeps the chattering class and professional naysayers employed. So here is what President Obama said:
“Other countries have mandatory voting,” Mr. Obama said at a town hall-style event in Cleveland, Ohio, citing places like Australia. “It would be transformative if everybody voted — that would counteract money more than anything.”
The president continued, “The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily toward immigrant groups and minorities… There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.”
Without belaboring the state of voting in Australia, let’s just note 22 nations have compulsory voting laws, but only half of them enforce it. People who don’t vote are either fined or lose government benefits.
Getting more Texans to the polls might be a good thing for democracy in the state (And if Gallup is right, a good thing for the capital D variety as well.) Voter turnout is an embarrassment for Texas. In the presidential election of 2012, just 59 percent of the registered voters cast a ballot, but that only amounted to 44 percent of the voting age population. The number of registered voters in Texas hit a record high of 14 million last year, an increase of 379,000 registered voters over the 2012 numbers; however, that still left 4.8 million voting age adults unregistered. (Before you even think it, that number of unregistered adults is higher than the estimated 1.2 million undocumented aliens living in the state.)
Voter turnout always is higher in presidential election years, but there was a substantial drop in Texas between the 2010 governor’s race and the one last year. The Bill White/Rick Perry match-up spurred 38 percent of the registered voters to the polls, while the Wendy Davis/Greg Abbott contest only brought out 34 percent of the registered voters. Whether that was caused by Texas’ new, stringent voter identification law is hard to tell. Last year’s election had about the same percentage turnout as the 2006 contest when incumbent Governor Rick Perry fended off Chris Bell, Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman.
Now, elitists might argue that the best case against compulsory voting is that we already have enough uninformed voters casting ballots. ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel was in Austin this week for South by Southwest, and his crew asked some marijuana stoned festival goers a few civics questions.
Reporter: “Who said: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself?’”
Man in Stetson: “Hemingway?”
Reporter: “Who said, ‘Roll me up and smoke me when I die?”
Man in Stetson, without hesitation: “Willie Nelson.”
Willie was disgusted. “I can’t believe he didn’t know that was FDR. He must be smoking better (bleep) than I’ve got.”
Mandatory voting might help turnout in Texas, but it is a bad idea. Voting is a right and a privilege. You can exercise the right by voting or not voting. And, as they say, you get the government you don’t vote for. Preventing people from voting is an equally bad idea.
During the voter identification debate, I kept thinking there had to be a better way to halt in-person voter fraud. Perhaps that way is in a country to where we brought democracy, Iraq. Instead of having to present a valid photo identification to cast a ballot, each voter sticks a finger in purple ink and leaves a fingerprint on the sign-in sheet. A person with a purple finger can only vote once because they can’t hide the purple finger. If voter fraud does occur, proof of a fingerprint would be left behind to identify the perpetrator. As Texas voters last year produced voter identification, Iraqi women with their faces covered by burqas proudly held up their purple fingers to show they had voted.
The purple finger is back. Iraqis went to the polls Wednesday to vote in parliamentary elections, and once again voters are holding up ink-stained fingers as a sign of pride.
Surely a nation trapped in the Middle Ages is not ahead of Texas on voter turnout.