Mandatory Voting Doesn't Address the Problem of Corruption, Mr. President

03/23/2015 12:29 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015
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President Obama, speaking at the City Club of Cleveland Wednesday, was asked what he thought he could do about the issue of money in politics. And his answer -- for the short term, at least -- is to suggest that America make voting mandatory, as they do in Australia.

He’s wrong. Dead wrong.

I admit, there are advantages to mandatory voting when it comes to civil rights; it’s not a bad idea. However, mandatory voting wouldn’t do anything to stop the flow of money in politics. Indeed, it may worsen the problem, as the most apathetic towards voting would be most likely to be affected by the expensive advertising campaigns that require politicians to sell out to the highest bidder.

What makes this doubly frustrating is that I’ve studied the link between electoral systems and corruption. There is one, but it has nothing to do with whether voting is mandatory. Corruption, at it’s core, is an incentive problem, and mandatory voting just doesn’t alter the incentives that affect candidates’ decision making.  

In short: Raising money to get elected is a strong incentive to do what makes the funders happy. Securing votes is a weak incentive to make the voters happy.

Why is raising money a strong incentive? Well, if a candidate does not raise sufficient amounts of money, they not only will not be able to afford to run an effective advertising campaign, they will also be ignored by party leaders and by the media. There is a “green primary” and candidates must win this primary first by keeping the funders happy before they can begin to compete in the “voting election.”

On the other side of the equation, our system of voting, single-member district [SMD], is a weak incentive. SMD produces large amounts of "vote wastage" -- votes cast that had no statistical bearing on the outcome of the election. It results in no viable alternatives to the two major parties candidates -- who must have played the “green primary” game to get where they are. In most cases, it results in non-competitive districts, where one party will always win, making votes -- and the voters -- effectively meaningless from an incentive standpoint.

Now, there are ways we can change the voting system to help address the money in politics problem - to effectively, make the voting incentive stronger. If we switched to a voting system that eliminates or minimizes vote wastage -- such as the Single Transferable Vote [STV] system (also used in Australia, I might add), it would make sure that every voters vote statistically mattered and put pressure on major party candidates to keep their voters happy, lest their core voters defect to a (now viable) third party.  

But moving to STV has nothing to do with mandatory voting. What mandatory voting might do is elect more Democrats -- but Democrats that still have to compete in the “green primary,” Democrats that still have to keep their funders happy first, Democrats that can still take their voters for granted.

What would be a better short-term way to start addressing the problem with a single statute would be to make the voters the effective funders, and have “citizen-funded elections.” Politicians would still be “bought,” and run in the “green primary” but they would be bought by the people they are elected to serve in office. Both Democrats and Republicans have put forward plans for doing just that. (Democrats prefer matching funds, Republicans prefer vouchers, I don’t give a damn either way, so long as it gets done.)

What frustrates me is that in 2008, President Obama ran on this issue -- and suggested that he would do something about it.  This is not the case of a President who doesn’t get it.  It’s the case of a President who, quite frankly, understands exactly how corrupt he is -- a President so worn down by vicious attack after attack that he simply doesn’t want to be President anymore and has given up on trying to help the people he was tasked with serving, and is now just thinking about how he will make a living once he is out of office.

And if that’s the case, I say to President Obama that he should  resign and give Vice President Biden a chance at pushing for reform. At least Biden gets it.

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