Make Leadership, Not Voting, Mandatory

On voter apathy and big money, Obama has the right diagnosis and the wrong cure.

President Obama is like the half-baked doctor who diagnoses what's wrong with you and prescribes the wrong medicine. Good call, bad doctor. Take two major ails of the U.S. political system:

1. Declining voter participation, particularly among young and minority voters who are most likely to feel disenfranchised.

2. An unhealthy approach to financing campaigns after Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that outlawed restrictions on political spending.

Obama's prescription? Force everybody to vote.

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"In Australia, and some other countries, there's mandatory voting," the president said Wednesday in Cleveland, where he addressed middle-class economics. "It would be transformative if everybody voted—that would counteract money more than anything."

Transformative how? Counteract money in what way? "The people who tend not to vote are young, they're lower income, they're skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups," Obama said.

Oh, so it would be transformative in the sense of helping the Democratic Party? In other words, this is a partisan play. "There's a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls."

"Some folks" is code for Republicans who exaggerate the threat of fraud to make it harder for minority and young voters (code for Democrats) to cast ballots. While voter suppression and voting integrity are important issues, the real disease is voter apathy.

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Nearly half of all eligible voters blew off the 2012 president election, an abysmal turnout by historical and global standards. Turnout for last year's midterm elections was the worst in more than 70 years.

No, Mr. President: "Some folks" didn't force millions of potential votes to stay home. Most Americans don't think their votes matter. Don't think their leaders listen. Don't think the institutions of politics and government have adapted to the times. And, sadly, they're right.

The proof is self-evident: Voter suppression is a sanctioned policy of the GOP, and the Democratic president's best answer to voter apathy is to shift responsibility (and, presumably, blame) to the people: Make them vote!

How about giving Americans something worth voting for? In 2008, when Obama and the country still had the audacity to hope for change, turnout skyrocketed to nearly 62 percent. Republicans in Congress pledged to see him fail and he did. The founding promise of his presidency was squandered.

Shame we can't make leadership mandatory.

As for campaign money, Obama didn't explain how 100 percent turnout would "counteract money." Nor did he explain how mandatory voting would dilute the power of special interests who buy access to the presidency and Congress. He obviously hasn't thought this through.

People who do think seriously about the influence of political money agree with Obama that the status quo is unacceptable. The typical lawmaker in Washington spends a third of his or her time raising money. Most of the money comes from a relatively small circle of special interests who demand and get favors.

Few voters are represented by a special interest. Their representatives are in the pocket of special interests.

One option is to overturn Citizens United in some future Supreme Court or by constitutional amendment. That's not likely to happen soon, and, even if it did, the 1990s proved that spending limits are porous.

A better option is to enact post-Internet reforms, such as requiring immediate electronic disclosure of all political donations. Better yet, give ordinary people the ability to raise gobs of money that actually counteract special-interest donations. One interesting idea comes from Rep. John Sarbanes, a liberal Democrat from Maryland who is trying to tap left- and right-wing populism.

He would create a small-donor matching system that gives regular Americans—and the candidates they support—an avenue to winning elections outside the traditional big-money system.

His bill would provide a $25 tax credit for small campaign contributions, which could be matched 6-to-1 for candidates who agree to forsake political action committees and self-limit their donations at $1,000. The matching money would come from tax check-offs and a fund created by closing tax loopholes on special interests who benefit from the current system.

Sarbanes envisions a time when a cop or a plumber or a factory worker invites 30 of his or her friends to a house party in honor of a neighbor running for office. Each pal donates $50 and gets half of it back. The total is $1,500, which the neighbor/candidate matches 6-to-1 for $10,000.

Ten thousand dollars is how much a candidate gets today at a typical special-interest fundraiser.

I can see you rolling your eyes. Public financing? The GOP will never go for it. Voluntary tax check-offs? They never work. Dilute special interests? Right, like that has ever happened.

All true, and Sarbanes knows it. He acknowledges that his bill, sponsored by 142 Democrats and one Republican (Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina) is a partisan long shot until an event or movement comes along to ignite and unite populists in both parties —a scandal, a change in House leadership, or a change in state and local government leadership. Post-Internet populist uprisings are sudden and unexpected, Sarbanes said, "and we'll be ready for it."

"Lots of people have fled the political town square and gone off into the hills," Sarbanes told me. "We need to do something to bring their voices back into the system, to bring them down out of the hills and back into the public square."

This rhetoric of a liberal Democrat fits nicely in any Republican's stump speech, because if there's one thing that unites red and blue America, it's disillusionment. "We're not limiting speech," he said, "we're adding to it. We're adding the people's voice to it."

Disillusionment is a cancer on the body politic. The cure will be disruptive, even painful, but the status quo is terminal.