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New book argues mandatory voting will fulfill America’s promise of democracy

People voting in 2020

Universal voting "would change our political culture in a number of ways that would be extremely healthy," sayd E.J. Dionne Jr.

Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images

Rosenfeld is the editor of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

American democracy is facing grave and unprecedented tests in our time, many political pundits, election officials and voting advocates have said. A majority of Republicans believe partisan propaganda that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. The angriest pro-Donald Trump partisans have threatened election officials as never before. A new cottage industry of 2020-denying conspiracy theorists has not just fanned these flames, but “at least 20” are candidates for secretary of state — to oversee elections.

Such dire threats require a bold response. The remedy put forth by Miles Rapoport, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and former Connecticut secretary of state, and E.J. Dionne Jr., a Washington Post columnist and Brookings Institution senior fellow, is universal voting: requiring every eligible American citizen to vote. Their new book, "100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting," discusses these challenges and makes the case for the remedy now found in 26 countries. Voting Booth’s Steven Rosenfeld spoke with Miles Rapoport.

Steven Rosenfeld: Why does the United States need universal voting? In 2020, we had 209 million registered voters. One hundred and sixty-one million, or 77 percent, voted in the presidential election. That was the biggest number ever. Some people say that that’s a tremendous accomplishment, especially in a pandemic. Why should we do more?

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Miles Rapoport: First, I should say that writing "100% Democracy" was a great experience. E.J. Dionne, my co-author, is an incredible journalist and a great collaborator as well. Both of us believe strongly in the power of universal voting, and we see the book as a way to put this game-changing idea into the public discussion about the future of American elections.

On the 2020 turnout, it was indeed quite an accomplishment. The turnout in 2020, and if you go back to the midterms of 2018, they both were record turnouts. But at 50 percent in 2018, and 67 percent in 2020, that was good, especially in the midst of a pandemic. But it’s certainly nothing to write home about. The United States still lags well behind other major industrialized countries. And for those of us who really believe in full participation, in full democracy, and in representation and the consent of all of the governed, we have a long way to go.

I’ve been working on these issues for almost 40 years. I believe in the progress that’s been made: with same-day voter registration, the restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions, mail-in voting, and early voting. They’ve all moved the needle, but not very far. And in reading some of the things that [co-author] E.J. Dionne had written, I discovered that there are places around the world, Australia, perhaps most notably, where they really have moved that needle. It’s really something that the United States should consider.

SR: We cited slightly different numbers. I mentioned the numbers of registered voters and the percentage of those who turned out; and you are looking at the bigger number of all eligible voters and the percentage that voted. Rather than get lost in which statistic is better, the real question is who’s not voting and why aren’t they voting? What insights do you have into that?

MR: The actual voting electorate in the United States has for many years, [and] though the gap has been closing somewhat, been significantly skewed toward whiter voters, older voters, richer voters, and more educated voters. If you ask who’s not voting, or who is voting in less proportion, we’re talking about African Americans — although that has caught up quite significantly — other communities of color, young voters, poorer voters, less-educated voters. If you believe that the electorate ought to be fully representative of the population at large, then we still have a very skewed electorate and that’s a real problem.

SR: That phrase or assumption, “be fully representative of the population at large,” seems to be the dividing line in our national political parties. Democrats believe in wider representation and participation. Republicans believe in narrower representation, or, at least, a smaller electorate because it helps them preserve power as they’re demographically shrinking. The question then becomes, how does this begin to move forward? Federal election reform died. Battleground state Republicans are complicating, not simplifying, the process.

MR: Well, the first thing we need to do is explain what the advantages of a universal voting system would be. So let me do that first. In addition to the point that I made about a fully reflective electorate; I think it would change our political culture in a number of ways that would be extremely healthy.

First of all, I think if it were a requirement for every citizen to vote, which exists right now in terms of serving on a jury, then all of the institutions of society would bend themselves and adjust themselves to encourage it. If I were a principal at a high school, and all 18-year-olds were required to vote, would I be more likely to have a good civics education program? I think I would. If I were an employer and all of my employees were required to vote, would I be more likely to give them the time to participate? I think I would. I think you would see institutions really bend toward it.

Secondly, I think campaigns would change. Right now, campaigns are a contest for who can pull out their own base. In the worst-case scenario, they try to depress the base of the other people or other candidates or political parties. But in the system of universal voting, everyone is voting and therefore everyone is listening all the time. And what is required of campaigns is that they speak to everyone; they make the case for why all voters should be in favor of their principles and proposals, rather than just ginning up their base by whatever means necessary.

There is evidence in the countries that use universal voting that citizens themselves, when they know [that] they are required to vote, take the time in very significant numbers to educate themselves about the issues, to be cognizant of who’s on the ballot, and to participate. I think in a lot of ways this would make our system a lot better.

SR: You and I both have this elevated view of politics as it could be or should be as a noble, civic-minded public endeavor. But there are tens of millions of people who are now registered who are not voting, just like there are large numbers of people who are not getting vaccines. What do you do about that slice of society or the electorate that’s not exercising their right? Doesn’t that pose difficulties?

MR: The case of Australia is reasonably analogous. They’ve had universal voting since 1924, so almost 100 years. The first year they implemented it, the turnout in the country went from 60 percent to 90 percent. They have a pretty positive political culture. Elections are on Saturday. It’s a kind of a celebratory day. They have what’s called “democracy sausages,” which are booths outside of every polling place where people hang out after voting and buy food for a cause. I think it is possible; possible to create an upward cycle in a political culture. At least that’s an article of faith on my part. Do we have a long way to go in order to get there in the United States? Yes. We definitely do. But I think that we’ve got to be able to dream a little bit; to think about the future in ways that can really improve the situation. And that’s what we’re trying to do in this book.

SR: Let’s talk about 2020 and how we get there from here. Forty-three percent of the 161 million voters cast mailed-out ballots. I’ve heard people make the argument that the closest thing that’s just shy of universal voting is mailing everyone a ballot and it boosts turnout. We have seen some of that on the west coast in blue states for decades. Some red states like Utah are adopting it. Purple states like Nevada are now mailing every registered voter a ballot. Is that a pragmatic first step, since nothing in our political culture seems to change overnight?

MR: Yes, I think that is a really positive step forward. In the book, we describe a whole series of what we call gateway reforms, which are policies that encourage people to vote. Mail-in voting, universal mail-in voting, is certainly a major step in that direction. I’m very heartened by the fact that 40 states now offer early voting, so you don’t have the problem of if you’re busy on the Tuesday of Election Day, you’re out of luck. I think that same day or election day voter registration is a very important reform.

So yes, I do think that many of the things on the current agenda for people who believe in widening our democracy are very important and really good things. What universal voting is, for us, is kind of a North Star that says, “Okay, what is it that we really, really want?” And in my view, what we really want is everyone participating. And it is possible to take the reforms that are being done now, which, of course, are being strongly opposed in many places, but take those reforms and then really go the full distance to full participation or 90 percent turnout. And I think we can get there.

SR: You mentioned early voting, same-day registration, and other reforms that are inclusive. They boosted turnout, but they almost go unacknowledged in the partisan rhetoric, and in partisan fundraising. Democrats are always saying that voter suppression is everywhere. It’s in some places, but it’s not everywhere. And Republicans keep talking about voter fraud, which is a myth on any scale that would affect election results. So how do you shift the narrative away from doom and gloom scenarios, or these partisan cliches of enrage to engage, which tears down legitimacy and faith in elections?

MR: We have a severely damaged political culture right now. The phrase “enrage to engage” is an apt one. And it’s true, there are enraging things taking place. But if you look at the number of states that have passed [voting-related] legislation according to the Brennan Center, which was widely quoted, 19 states had passed restrictive legislation. However, that very same report says that 26 states passed expansive voter legislation. But it’s almost never mentioned in the headlines in the media or in the public debate.

We have both a media culture and a partisan political culture that have reasons to emphasize the negative and that’s a very big hill to climb. And no single policy around voting is going to change that, including the idea of universal voting. But what we hope is that if we can put this idea into the public debate, we can start to get people thinking again about what a democracy could be in terms of full participation. And maybe it will be adopted in a few places. We believe it will show, as it does in Australia and 25 other countries, that it really works, and we can start to change the tenor of the debate.

I also want to acknowledge—and I want to make this point because I think it’s important as a former election official—that there are a lot of dedicated Republican election officials who are trying to do their job, trying to make sure that people can vote, trying to make sure that the votes are counted accurately. So it’s not the entire Republican Party, but there is certainly a faction which is determined to enshrine minority rule by any means necessary. Those people have to be fought, strongly and tenaciously. But I also think that what we’re doing is trying to put an alternate stake in the ground to say, “Wait a second, there’s a very, very different way to think about this.” Let’s try to open our minds a little bit.

SR: Can you advance this in a few places? Is this something that states could adopt?

MR: I think it can. Universal voting could be adopted on three levels. You could imagine federal legislation which would require participation for federal elections. It’s unlikely that that will happen very soon. But you can also definitely imagine it for states. States absolutely have rights in the constitution to control the state elections, the time and manner of elections. And you could definitely do this for state elections, for legislature, for constitutional officers, for governor, for judges.

And you could even do this in municipalities. I have no doubt that the first efforts will be those of municipalities to do this for municipal elections. In most states, that will require some form of state enabling legislation. Each state is going to be different. But you could definitely imagine some cities taking the bold step of saying we want absolutely everybody in our city to vote and for their votes to be counted. And frankly, if they are successful in that, it puts a real pressure on other places to do the same. I think there is a way to do this.

Our hope is that we can first and foremost put the idea into the public domain discussion, then try to get organizations and elected officials who see the merit in it to begin to debate it at the policy level. I think it’s going to be a multi-year process, but a journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step and that’s the step we’re trying to take.

SR: That might be a good place to end this but let me just ask one other thing. When I’ve seen Republicans react to New York City giving non-citizens the vote in municipal elections and they turn it into fear mongering in other states, I can only imagine how they will attack this.

MR: There’s a torrent of misinformation and negative attacks on our democracy going on. The very act of voting and of allowing people to vote, not talking about requiring people to vote but allowing people to vote in[, in] an expansive way, is under attack. There is both a need to push back against all of the efforts and the narrative and the misinformation about voter fraud, which is virtually non-existent, and come back with the truth about what is happening. And then also go forward to say what can happen—that voting should be for everybody.

We expect that this proposal will be attacked and criticized. We did a thorough review of whether it’s constitutional and we believe it is. We did a poll, which is in the book that actually shows that only 25 percent of the population supports this idea now. But I think in large measure, that’s because it has never been put forward in a serious way. We’re trying to begin that discussion, mindful of the fact that there will be strong opposition and it won’t happen overnight. But we’re hoping that we can make a start and add something valuable to the discussion that isn’t simply, you know, small steps forward and trying to prevent small steps backward; that leaps over the current debate to say what if we gave an election and everybody came?

SR: So even though other people might be saying that there need to be other interventions given the partisan election subversion tactics that are unfolding in states like Georgia, and differently in Texas, you are saying that the concept of universal voting needs to be on the table as part of the narrative or bigger picture or context that pushes back?

MR: Yes. The push back against the efforts to restrict the vote, the efforts to undermine nonpartisan and independent Election Administration, the efforts to invent the problem of massive voter fraud, all those need to be pushed back; all those need to be fought in court, in the legislature, in local communities. We’re not saying, by any means, drop what you’re doing and focus on universal voting. But we are saying that universal voting can be a kind North Star of where we could go, if we made the kind of fundamental and fundamentally democratic premise going forward, that every single person will be participating in the act of self-governance in the United States.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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