Foxes, Monkeys, Elephants & Donkeys

We should all look more deeply at one long-simmering issue that may be actually be a root cause of many of our other problems. Oklahoma’s distressingly low voter turnout and the lack of citizen participation in government contributes to every other problem our state faces, including the current budget shortfall.

Low turnout and voter apathy is a problem in every state, but in Oklahoma the problem may be rising to the level of an existential crisis. About one-third of Oklahoma’s voting-age population (34.2%) was successful in casting a vote in last year’s midterm elections. (source: US Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/socdemo/voting/publications/p20/2014/index.html)

Not only does this lack of participation harm those who choose not to vote, it harms the legitimacy of every elected official in the state. No current sitting governor, senator or representative should feel they have a mandate from the people, they simply don’t have the numbers. The fact is that only a small percentage of Okies actually have a say in our leaders are (imagine what a simple majority of that 34% looks like). Being chosen by such a small subset of the population means our legislators are beholden only to the interests of that small segment.

I am a little worried that I will lose some of you if I take this opportunity to quote from the Federalist Papers, but with a issue as crucial to good governance as voting, we should appeal to the fundamental thinking that helped shape our government. In Federalist No. 39, James Madison wrote the following:

“It is essential to such a government [a republic] that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might…claim for their government the honorable title of republic.”

Voter participation in Oklahoma is now low enough to make James Madison cast a skeptical sidelong glance in our direction. We can see this decline in voter participation continue year over year as citizens become less engaged, more apathetic and more alienated from their government. Young voters have the most to lose by this trend. Only a third of citizens aged 18 to 24 are registered and less than 12% of them actually voted in 2014 elections. They simply aren’t participating in the work of running the state, and it is to everyone’s detriment.

The problem is so severe that it is time to consider creative solutions to the problem. There are numerous proposals on the table for eliminating the procedural causes for low-turnout. Happily, we made some good progress toward encouraging participation in the last session. Oklahoma now permits on-line voter registration, we’ve lowered (slightly) the threshold for ballot access for political parties, and we’ve made absentee voting a bit easier. Other proposals which are reasonable and shouldn’t be controversial include allowing same-day voter registration, pre-registration for 16 and 17 year-olds, extending the early voting period, adopting some or all-mail elections, and allowing instant-runoff voting.

All of these measures have been employed in various other states with success and we shouldn’t fear them. Unfortunately, our state government seems to take a paternalistic attitude towards the voters, and simply does not make an effort to encourage, protect and expand the right to vote.

The result is what we have today: a citizenry that is so distantly removed from the actions of their own government that they have lost the will to engage. Publicly we lament the rising tide of voter apathy, but I think we all know some individuals who quietly applaud the low turnout.

One solution would be to make voting mandatory. This technique is actually employed in several countries throughout the world, Australia being a prominent example. There are obviously exceptions for those who cannot physically vote, or those who have a religious conviction against participating in government (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses), and for other reasons, but it seems to work to some positive effect there. It has the dual benefit of providing an additional revenue source for those wayward governments that have trouble balancing their budgets, since those who choose not to vote can be fined for non-participation.

But adoption of such a law here in Oklahoma has little chance of success, and would risk a constitutional challenge. After all, if we have the right to free speech, don’t we also implicitly have the right to not speak? Putting that aside, might there be a way to encourage voting not by placing additional government mandates on the individual, but instead placing the burden on the political parties and the politicians themselves?

Would it be possible to pass a law that requires a certain quorum level of participation be reached before the results of an election can be certified? For example, what if the law said that any candidate for any office can only be certified as the winner of that election if he or she receives support from a majority of the eligible voters in the relevant district? So instead of a simple plurality of the votes cast, the candidate must win a majority of all possible votes.

This would mean that only a candidate who has the support of 50% plus 1 of the eligible voters would be the winner. This would place the responsibility for earning those votes on the parties and the candidates themselves, and the individual voter would still be free to abstain. It would mean the two big parties would have a vested interest in increasing the voter turnout rates, and not just from their own party, but from across the spectrum. Without sufficient voter turnout, you would not be able to certify a winner. It would encourage Democrats and Republicans to actually reach out to and solicit the support of all voters, not just those in their own party. We put the monkey on their back, and let the parties bear some of the burden caused by a disengaged populace. It would encourage the party-controlled Election Board (the proverbial fox watching the hen house) to remove voting obstacles and work to make the voting process easier as time goes on.

Perhaps encouraging politicians and parties to engage the public would lead to chaos, as the governor’s mansion and seats in the State Capitol go unfilled. But probably not. At least we would be directly solving for the establishment of a base of popular support from the people — which is the real purpose for having elections — rather that solving for the less salient metrics of a specific time, place and count of votes. It would certainly change the current dynamic, which I hope we can all agree is making it harder to solve our many other pressing problems.

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