Despite the long-held belief that America sets the standard for effective democracy, the disastrous 2000 presidential election and dwindling voter turnout rates show that we have a long way to go.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Argentina, a country where nearly 80 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots in its last presidential election, compared to a mere 50 percent of voting-age Americans who voted in the 2000 presidential election.
Why is there such a dramatic difference between the U.S., a 225-year-old democracy, and a country that recently experienced political upheaval? Argentinian election laws provide some clues. Not only does the government conduct voting during a three-day national holiday, but it also requires that all citizens participate in elections.
In Argentina’s second largest city of Rosario, I met a store clerk who has voted in every election since turning 18. She isn’t drawn to the polls every year by an appealing array of candidates or a particular political ideology. Admittedly, she votes because the government compels her to do so.
Argentina is one of 33 countries that have a compulsory voting law. There, voting is more than a right. It’s a civic requirement. Although Argentinian election officials agree that enforcement of the law is weak, many citizens believe sanctions still exist if they fail to appear at the polls on Election Day.
Supporters of mandatory voting argue that full participation ensures a more legitimate democratic outcome, as every qualified voter has a say. It also ensures that politicians campaign and craft policy with broader constituencies in mind.
Could it work in America? To compel citizens to vote would be too authoritarian for Americans because it contradicts our belief in freedom of expression. We definitely have the right to vote, but we are also afforded the individual right not to vote.
The more practical election reform to borrow would be to stretch Election Day from a 13-hour day to a weekend, or to declare it a national holiday.
Weekend or holiday voting, proposed in 2001 by the National Commission on Federal Election Reform headed by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, would enable voters, most of whom have busy workday schedules, time off to get to the polls.
It would also increase the potential pool of poll workers who would not have to take a vacation day to staff polling places. In Argentina, this allows election officials to enlist professionals, including teachers, to serve as election judges.
As the presidential election draws near and election officials grapple with how to reform elections and invigorate the electorate, we should examine ways of making it more convenient for voters to cast ballots.
Ironically, U.S. election officials often travel abroad to monitor elections and give advice; now, we need to look to other countries to improve our own elections. Certainly we would have more credibility in encouraging democracy abroad if we could practice it better here at home.
Cook County Clerk, Chicago