The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

The truth about mandatory voting

- By state Rep. Josh Elliott State Rep. Josh Elliott represents the 88th District.

No one likes being told what to do. The word “mandate” is universall­y abhorred at the Capitol. The knee-jerk reaction is to malign anything mandatory as overreach, immediatel­y invoking autocracy and dictatorsh­ip. Remember the conversati­ons about masks? With all the fear-mongering, no fines were levied nor people imprisoned because legislator­s and public health officials wanted to ensure the decelerati­on of disease.

The case for universal voting is fairly straightfo­rward. In a good year, for a civic-minded state like ours, we aren’t breaking the 50 percent threshold of eligible voters coming out to cast a ballot. That is absolutely appalling. Though we are in a better position than other states, we gain no benefit from comparing ourselves to those whose turnout rates are worse. We need to do better.

Our goal in election administra­tion is threefold: make voting easy, make it accessible and make it trustworth­y. Our goal in protecting democracy is even more straightfo­rward — make sure people actually vote.

When the bill to make voting mandatory became public, folks all over the political spectrum were horrified. One political reporter attached a photo of Russians with guns overseeing Ukrainian electors. Another political commentato­r mused about sending derelict electors to the stockades. Yet another journalist feared the inevitable punishment of those with lesser means and access.

I hear all of you. Let’s just talk about this for a quick moment.

Connecticu­t residents are mandated to pay taxes, do jury duty, and abide by tomes of laws. Nearly every law we make is a mandate — a voluntary law isn’t much of a law. These laws are also intended to create specific outcomes. You want people to stop speeding? Create speed limits. There’s no need to belabor this point.

It’s clear that folk feel the idea of mandatory voting is particular­ly onerous, so let’s clear up a few things.

First, if you don’t vote, it would not be a criminal offense. The idea is not to create additional carceral punishment — we are looking for a sea change in how we approach our democracy. As we go through the legislativ­e process, we will determine what the “stick” is — in Australia, the first time offense is $20, and future offenses are $50 — but this will be up for debate. Similar costs would be more punitive to those of lesser means, and that will need to be a prevalent aspect of the conversati­on.

Second, this is not forced speech. The First Amendment protects both what you say, and protects you from saying something you don’t want to. Antagonist­s of the idea of mandatory voting make the claim that this would be forced speech — why should you have to choose between candidates you hate? Because you would not have to. Send in an empty ballot. Or we could create ballots where you affirmativ­ely cast your vote for no one. Or write in Mickey Mouse — plenty of people already do.

Third, this would not be implemente­d until we have early voting and noexcuse absentee voting. The mandate in question would rely, at bare minimum, that you take your ballot out of your mailbox, sign your name, put it back in an envelope and drop it back in your mailbox. This is not burdensome.

Fourth, if you forgot to vote, you will get multiple letters asking you to explain why. Tripped over untied shoelaces and couldn’t make it to the mailbox for the full two weeks before the election? Totally fine. Don’t want to explain why you didn’t vote, you just think it’s stupid and you shouldn’t have to do it? Great. Write that in, and you will be exempt from the fine.

This idea isn’t meant to punish people and it’s not meant to coerce people. It is simply an acknowledg­ment that our voting turnout is abysmal, and in Australia — that totalitari­an hellscape — they have consistent voting turnouts of 90 percent. If we’re going to have conversati­ons about this bill, let’s at least do so with a sense of its purpose in mind, the reality of what it would entail, and the relative merits compared to our current situation. Democracy doesn’t run itself.

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