How about a reverse poll tax?

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The originally planned title of this column was “The verdict.”  At this point, however, so much has been written, read and said about the McDonnell trial that there’s little left for me to add. (Nevertheless, see October's cover story.) A break between the jury’s verdict last month, sentencing next January and what will likely be a lengthy appeals process is a relief for now.

One thing is clear: Reform is in the air.  Despite the perennial misgivings of secessionists, the McDonnell case serves as a stark reminder to Virginia’s politicians that the commonwealth is not subject to just its own laws but also to those of the United States.  Who among the nonpolitical class would’ve guessed that our state ethics laws were among the most lax in the nation?

Regular readers of this column are by now familiar with a repeated litany of suggested changes that might benefit Virginia.  Among them, nonpartisan redistricting, gubernatorial succession, an end to the moratorium on annexation or changes that might lead to less reliance on independent cities and make government services more regional in nature.

Let’s throw a new idea into the mix:  How about a reverse poll tax?  Much of government’s dysfunction can be traced to declining voter participation.  Let’s make voter participation mandatory and levy a fine on those who don’t go to the polls.

Think this sounds radical?  Hardly.  Twenty-some countries across the globe have compulsory voting, the largest being Australia.  While not a political panacea, requiring citizens to cast votes is not at all unusual.

After all, how different is voting from other civic responsibilities such as jury duty and paying taxes?  Arguably, voting is much more important.  It only takes 12 jurors to decide a case, but what about the consequences of low voter turnout?  Should we really be content with a representative democracy selected by a minority of the citizenry?

Globally in developed countries, overall voter participation rates are about 70 percent.  In the U.S. about 60 percent of eligible voters turnout for presidential races, and only about 40 percent participate in midterm elections.  These rates have been relatively stable during the past 50 years.  During the same period of time in Virginia, voter participation has declined from about 80 percent in presidential elections and 60 percent for midterm races to about 70 percent and 40 percent respectively.

Virginia’s history is long, and laws regarding voter eligibility have generally been restrictive.  Originally, only white male landowners of age 21 or older were entitled to vote.  Changes to the state constitution after the Civil War extended the vote to freed slaves.  However, poll taxes and literacy tests eventually disenfranchised African- Americans, Native Americans and poor whites. These impediments were found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966).

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote in 1920, and women began to exercise that right in the commonwealth soon after.  Virginia, however, delayed its formal ratification of the U.S. amendment until 1952.  As recently as this year, a new law went into effect requiring Virginia voters to present photo identification at the polls.

Within the framework of the U.S. Constitution, states generally are given the latitude to develop their own election procedures.  Although not uncommon in other parts of the world, compulsory voting has been enacted in the United States only once.  In 1777, 10 years before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the State of Georgia established a tax not to exceed five pounds on every person absenting himself from an election without reasonable excuse.  This provision was omitted when Georgia next revised its constitution in 1789.

Opponents of compulsory voting argue that it is compelled speech and that freedom of speech necessarily implies the freedom not to speak.  Another objection suggests voting is a civic right, rather than a civic duty, making it different from paying taxes or serving on a jury.  Some feel that compulsory voting also leads to more votes being cast without interest in politics or knowledge of the candidates.  Yet, there is little evidence that such ballots influence the outcomes of elections in compulsory-voting nations.

The case for compulsory voting rests on an altogether different set of arguments.  Proponents say increased voter turnout leads to a higher degree of governmental legitimacy — candidates elected this way will represent the majority rather than a politically motivated minority.  Compulsory voting also would change the dynamics of how money is spent in political races.  Vast sums now being spent on efforts to get out the vote would no longer be required.  This might reduce the role of money in politics, redirecting it to educating voters on meaningful issues.

Interestingly, only about half of the countries that have compulsory voting enforce taxes or other penalties against those who fail to vote.  Still, the message is clear that voter participation in an integral duty of citizenship.  Why should we expect any less?

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