Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Voting: A Duty of the Commons

Election Day has taken on huge political significance this year. The balance of power between the two parties is up for grabs, and the projections have been constantly changing. Polls show that half of voters see this election as a referendum on the President’s agenda. And the rise of the right-wing Tea Party’s influence has captivated the media. So politicos have been looking forward to this day as if it’s a political Superbowl -- a partisan death-match. This may make for exciting political theater tonight as we watch the returns, but seems at odds with our progressive, commons-based values.

Sadly, our form of democracy just reflects a society based on competition, enclosure, and an overall winner-takes-all mentality. In her book, Governing a Commons from a Citizen’s Perspective, nobel-winner Elinor Ostrom wrote about how governing a common pool of resources requires a different notion of responsibility and citizenship. But we have allowed our political processes to be enclosed by corporate interests, just like the environment and so many other parts of our Commons. The Citizens United case exacerbated the long-standing problems of private money dominating elections. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to government transparency, there has been more than $450 million in outside spending on this election; with nearly $200 million being spent just in the last two weeks. That level of spending by private, corporate interests is dramatically increased compared to the 2006 midterm. And we’ve seen the results of that spending when we turn on the tv for the last month.

All of the spending on political ads (especially this season’s overtly racist ones) is in a perverse way a response to the general lack of interest and involvement in our democratic processes. Voters are a rare commodity in the U.S., so candidates (and their corporate sponsors) spend as much money as possible to appeal to our basest, ADD-afflicted, sensibilities. In the 2006 midterm elections, the voter turnout rate was only 40%. Although turnout was significantly higher in 2008 for the presidential election (it usually is), we still have roughly two out of five people who are eligible to vote opting out of the democratic process.

In response to this lack of involvement in the democratic commons, many countries have established compulsory voting. In fact, roughly 10% of the world’s governments use compulsory voting. Australia established compulsory voting at the turn of the 20th Century; with the “impetus for compulsory voting at federal elections appear[ing] to have been a decline in turnout from more than 71% at the 1919 election to less than 60% at the 1922 election.” Imagine, our high-turnout mark of 60% was enough of a shock to Australians that they made voting a duty of its citizens.

I don’t know that compulsory voting would be a magic bullet, but a robust democracy needs both commons-based (public) financing for elections and for its citizens to step up to the call of duty and vote. Otherwise we’ll be stuck with the rash of outside spending that amounts to the enclosure of campaigning by rich corporations, and the hyper-partisanship due to our obsession with competition over cooperation. And what’s worth it’ll be what we deserve.

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