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November 17, 2010

What Hit Us on Election Day?

Big Money warps the democratic process. Is the answer mandatory voting?

The elections this year confirm that our form of democracy 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”:http://blog.sunlightfoundation.com/2010/10/19/citizens-united-before-after-what’s-next/ 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 throughout October.

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. Voting totals are low in the U.S. compared to many countries., so candidates (and their corporate sponsors) spend as much money as possible to appeal to our basest, ADD-afflicted, sensibilities. In the 2010 midterm elections, the voter turnout rate was only 40 per cent: http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2010G.html , the same as 2006. Turnout was significantly higher in 2008 for the presidential election (it usually is). 

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.

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld 
is deputy director for idea generation and dissemination at the Center for Community Change. He contributes regularly to the blog Kim Klein and the Commons , where this was first published. Thomas-Breitfeld is also involved with the Building Movement Project at Demos.