Jonah Goldberg
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It's a sure sign someone is losing when he demands that the rules be changed.

That might explain the renewed interest in forcing people to vote against their will. Peter Orszag, President Obama's former budget director and now a vice chairman at Citigroup, recently wrote a column for Bloomberg View arguing for making voting mandatory.

He's not alone. Icons of the Beltway establishment Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann also favor the idea. As does William Galston, a former advisor to President Clinton. (Mann and Galston are scholars at the liberal Brookings Institution; Ornstein is a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute.)

While I have great respect for Ornstein, Mann and Galston -- I'm undecided about Orszag -- I find the idea absurd, cynical and repugnant.

Let's start with the repugnant part.

One of the chief benefits of coerced voting, according to Orszag, is that it increases participation. Well, yes, and kidnapping drunks in pubs increased the ranks of the British navy, but it didn't turn the conscripted sailors into patriots.

I think everyone can agree that civic virtue depends on civic participation. Well, any reasonable understanding of civic participation has to include the idea of voluntarism. If I force you to do the right thing against your will, you don't get credit for doing the right thing.

Let's move on to the absurdity. Ornstein and Mann suggest fining people, say $15, if they don't vote and using the proceeds to set up a lottery to bribe reluctant voters. If the old line that lotteries are taxes on stupid people is correct, then the upshot of this proposal is that the cure to what ails democracy is an influx of large numbers of stupid voters.

Even if all the people who play the lottery aren't stupid (I've bought my share of tickets), there's still a problem. Do we really think democracy will be improved by enlisting the opinions of Americans who otherwise wouldn't bother if there wasn't a jackpot in the offing?

This brings us to the cynicism of it all. While many political scientists and economists hold that mandatory voting probably wouldn't change electoral outcomes, many people still believe that compelling the poor, the uneducated and the politically unengaged would be a boon to Democrats (what that says about Democrats is for others to judge). I wonder: Would the winner of the ballot lottery have to show a photo ID?

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Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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