What if just one state made voting mandatory? Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg
What if just one state made voting mandatory? Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

When this November we elect the people to lead our country, maybe 40 percent or even fewer will go to vote. Is it too late to stop this disgrace?

To take a page from "Nudge," by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, we might try “nudging” people to vote. Here’s one way: a personal, guilt-inducing letter of invitation to everyone to vote, mailed by every secretary of state to every citizen, registered or not, for whom there is a driver’s license or state identification of any kind.

Some may groan: If increasing turnout is the goal, why not change the election date to Sunday? Why not mail a ballot to everyone? Indeed, why not have compulsory voting?

Voting Rights

But apart from starting brawls, all those things require a change in the law. Nothing, not one thing, stops the secretary of state of Illinois, or Massachusetts, or California, from just sending out an innocent little letter inviting citizens to vote, and reminding them of their civic obligation to do so. At the moment, polarization is driving our politics, and our divided government leads to gridlock, which frustrates voters and makes it all seem pointless. Naming and shaming people who don’t vote has the potential to change that.

You might say: “Bah, humbug. No letter of invitation will have any effect on me.” You probably don’t even care what your neighbors are doing.

But we don't care about you. By your very reading of this op-ed article, you have already demonstrated a higher-than-average propensity to vote. The purpose here is to prey on people who don’t know what they ought to do.

This little epiphany came to me of late while traveling in a foreign country, where they always do things differently -- and in particular, it happened on a trip in September to Berlin, just before the national elections. A friend there handed me such a letter of invitation -- to be sure, more stiffly Teutonic than feel-good American in style. Yet reading it, I felt, well … nudged, and even envious that I had no chance to be a good German.

Suppose with a nudge the U.S. voting rate in 2014 went up from the typical 40 percent to 50 percent and maybe from 60 percent to 70 percent in a presidential year -- which is only a modest turnout by the standard of other democracies on this planet. Are we so sure that our system of government would still be so dysfunctional? Even a nudge of just two points would still justify a letter.

Of course, we liberals especially should be much more than nudge-niks; and if it were possible legislatively, we should be swinging a stick. If we require people to serve on juries, we can require them to vote -- yes, compulsory voting, just like in Australia and Belgium. “Oh, it’s in the Constitution that we don’t have to vote.” Where? In the text, there is neither an absolute right to vote nor a right not to vote. It simply requires the eligibility be the same as eligibility for voting for the state legislature. “Oh, it violates our right to conscience, or the First Amendment.” How? It’s fine to cast a blank ballot, as they do in Australia, which has compulsory voting -- and where you're fined if you don't. Once they go to the polling place, they can do whatever they like.

Besides, not every abridgment of speech or conduct violates the First Amendment, and there is nothing “content based” about an obligation to cast a vote of some kind, blank or not, which is neutral as to for whom or how the citizen votes at all. Spare me the First Amendment -- tell it to the Tea Party.

It is true the Constitution is broken. But let’s not blame the Founders too much. It was our own era that came up with the “silent” filibuster. It was our digital age that perfected the gerrymander.

Is it possible that the Constitution might work better if we had voting rates of 80 percent, or perhaps even just 70 percent? It's possible. And not because at 70 percent the Democrats would triumph: They might not. But both parties would be different. A bigger percentage of the “99 percent” or just the “bottom 90 percent” would be there to ballast against the “1 percent” or the “10 percent” at the top. The “have-not” faction, to take a concept from Federalist No. 10, would be much larger relative to the “haves,” and all the false consciousness and cognitive dissonance in the world could not cancel out the good effect. Good things would start to happen. The problem of economic inequality at least on the scale we have would sooner or later solve itself.

Maybe the red states would never do it -- but think what would happen if the blue states had compulsory voting and the red states did not. It would pile up popular majorities so lopsided for the blue-state presidential choice that red states would have to relent. To keep the Electoral College from becoming a total joke, they would have to resort to compulsory voting, too.

Can’t one blue state, just one of them, try compulsory voting by initiative and see if it sets off a constitutional chain reaction? After all, the states are supposed to be “laboratories for experiment.” That’s why we have 50.

(Thomas Geoghegan is a labor lawyer in Chicago. He is the author, most recently, of “Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?”)

To contact the writer of this article: Thomas Geoghegan at geogh711@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.