Make voting mandatory!

And another modest proposal to fix our sick democracy.

Published November 5, 2002 5:16PM (EST)

"Here," my executive producer said matter-of-factly. "Right here."

He was pointing to the previous night's ratings of "The Big Show," a little car crash we used to televise nightly on MSNBC, which, by that time, had been all-Monica Lewinsky for about four months. His thumbnail was aligned with the downward line, one so rapidly plunging that it was nearly straight, so ominous that it could have been the mathematical plotting of the old cliché "going to hell in a handbasket."

"This, right here, this is where Barney Frank said no, he wouldn't like to comment about the president and Miss Lewinsky," my exec said, and then, moving his thumbnail all the way down the plummeting line, down to where it crashed to a halt nearly at the bottom of the graph, down where it took a sudden left and flattened out to a cool, serene negligibility, he continued. "And this, right here, this is where you said, 'OK, neither do I, so let's talk about voting reform instead.'"

This little encounter demonstrated one of the unrecognized reasons that serious campaign and voting reform is stalled in this country: As a TV topic it just can't compete with more pressing subjects, like White House interns. Even a short-timer like me -- the span between my dive-in at the deep end of the TV news pool and my escape through the filter system was just 15 months -- quickly learned that "election reform" is the equivalent of Fox's already-canceled "Girls Club."

Which means that under the current system, no one's ever going to pay enough attention to the subject to reverse low voter turnout or campaign gutterization. So if we want to get serious about improving the size of the electorate or the size of the brains of the elected, we're going to have to make voting reform into the wildest, sexiest, most contentious, most yakfest-suited topic on the map.

The Arizona Clean Election laws, simple and beautiful as they seem, balancing and nurturing as they may be, just aren't going to get Geraldo Rivera's head to spin completely around on its axis or cause Trent Lott's hair to move.

Thus I offer two modest proposals to get head and hair flying.

First: Mandatory voting. You heard me. A democracy where half of the citizens sit back and say, "no, thanks," isn't a democracy at all -- just a really large oligarchy. If we have not already reached it, we are nearing, inevitably, the point at which everyone who votes has a personal stake in the outcome. As the percentage of lever-pullers continues to decline, it's going to eventually be just the candidates' friends, families and people from their secret second lives who even bother to show up. You know -- like park league softball.

Mandatory voting would require a system of rewards and/or punishments and another bureaucracy. But if adopted, it would instantaneously reconfigure the political landscape. Gone would be the ages-old excuse of the nonvoter: that his ballot matters not. At some fundamental level, his ballot would matter dearly to himself, because failure to cast it would invoke the wrath of the Mandatory Voting Enforcement Division.

It is a seldom commented upon fact that for general elections, Australia has used mandatory voting for decades, with no apparent impingement on personal freedom and a huge growth in political consciousness. Failure to vote, either in person or by absentee ballot, must be explained by a fantastic excuse ("I got hit by the prime minister's limousine"), or it can be punished by a $15 fine. If you think a $15 fine is a slap on the wrist, good for you. Send me all the $15 you don't want.

Here, I would suggest, we should go both nastier and nicer. For national elections, instead of punishing nonparticipation, we should reward those who show up. With your proof-of-voting seal, you get to cut some small figure -- $25? -- off your federal income tax. Like a free meal, nothing tastes better than a bottom-line, cash-back offer. Hell, we live in a society in which a New York bank is offering depositors who open an account in five figures or more a cash payment of 75 bucks -- and those who take them up on it are reportedly looking at the $75 as if it was the first allowance money they ever got from Mom and Dad.

You can tweak this process a little further, of course, by adopting those Arizona Clean Election elements (principal among them, public funding for candidates who eschew any private funding) and tying the two together. The politically active could simply roll the $25 over to that giant, regulated, neutral campaign chest run by the Great White Slush Father in Washington.

While on the national level we reward, on the state and local level we need to threaten. You don't show up for a Senate vote? You don't get to renew your driver's license. That'd get everybody's attention. Talk about selling voting reform as a television topic! Fox would probably put Bill O'Reilly on live for 72 consecutive hours, like CBS did with H.V. Kaltenborn during the Munich negotiations in 1938. Viewers at home would be able to smell the smoke coming out of Chris Matthews' ears. Wolf Blitzer might actually move his chair slightly.

Now, if you're really going to go along with me and make not voting a misdemeanor, you have to give an option to the disaffected. The message has to be clear: We're not trying to make you vote for anybody. We just want you to show up. Every ballot, from the presidency to the sewage district supervisor, would have to include a "none of the above" option. We might tinker with the terminology to make it hipper, and to tap into the incipient anger. "None of the above" could become "Screw you, politicians."

Whatever we call it, the "plague on both your houses" no-vote would have to have some teeth to it. In the event that "none of the above" actually won, the election would have to be restaged within a narrow window of time, and that revote could revive an element that has been almost entirely lost over our American centuries: We could make the politicians afraid of the voters again. Anybody on the ballot when "none of the above" won would be barred from the special second election -- and for the next regular election for the same position.

In short, if your election were to deteriorate like the gubernatorial one here in New York has, you could do something really, really mean about it. Here, what has pretty much been a cakewalk for George Pataki over Carl McCall (with a curious independent named Tom Golisano doing a rather inept Jesse Ventura impression as a sideshow) has devolved into a race featuring literally nothing but mudslinging advertisements. I am not using this term loosely. For weeks, the only ads any of them have placed have accused the other two of lying and defaming, or have engaged in lying and defaming while accusing the others of lying and defaming, or, most recently, accusing the others of lying and defaming while defending themselves from accusations of lying and defaming.

The "none of the above" option could spawn its own Nihilist Party. Upset to the point of wanting to kick in the television every time a Pataki, McCall or Golisano ad came on? Go to the polls and vote "none" -- and give them all, in effect, a time out until they learn how to play nice.

My second modest proposal to send voting and campaign reform to the head of the political agenda is kind of fun, too. Make it an impeachable offense, or a statutory one with an automatic fine of $1,000,000 per conviction, for a sitting president of the United States to campaign for anybody but himself. I don't think there's really a way to keep a first-term incumbent from running for reelection, even though right up through William McKinley's reelection campaign it was considered unseemly for the president to do anything but wave. But, the rest of the time, we can and should keep these guys off the street, and back at their desks doing whatever the hell it was we hired them to do.

I'm concerned here, of course, about the tens of millions that can be raised by a president, and the dozens of candidates who can get elected not on the basis of any personal merit -- not even for having created the best mudslinging commercials -- but by dint of the fact that the president wants them to win. But the real goal here is to address what is obvious to even the most partisan of today's political tacticians. Take as your starting date almost any time since Lincoln was shot and you can trace an overall -- if not consistent -- loss of brainpower among the chief denizens of the White House. This is not likely to right itself. Thus we must take a prophylactic step. It's a full-time job: I want my president presidenting, not serving as the chief attraction in the political equivalent of a P.T. Barnum traveling freak show. Most of the recent ones, and certainly most of the next 10 or 20, would be lucky to be able to preform one of these jobs, let alone both of them.

We have to think big picture here. We have to make election reform as compelling, mindless and sexy for television as an L.A. freeway police chase. And the only way to do that is to reward voting, punish not voting, refuse to overburden increasingly cognitively challenged presidents with campaigning, and make the politicos fear for their livelihoods.

Join me. Our time has come. Or, you can vote "none of the above" and bar me from the next elections -- and pocket $25 for doing so.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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