Miles Rapoport on How We Can Achieve Universal Voting

Miles Rapoport


Miles Rapoport is also the Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School. He formerly served as secretary of the state of Connecticut.  He is the coauthor of the book 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting with E.J. Dionne.

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I have worked on voting issues for 35 years, for same-day registration and for opening up the process to younger people and preregistration, and, you know, nevertheless 35 years later we’re still at 60 and 65%. 2020 was the highest turnout election ever and it was at 66%. So, I started to think what is it that could really, really move the needle and change the game.

Miles Rapoport

Key Highlights

  • What is Civic Duty Voting?
  • Why Should We Require Citizens to Vote?
  • Is Voting a Right or a Duty?
  • Australia’s System of Civic Duty Voting
  • How Would it Change How Citizens Think About Themselves?

Podcast Transcript

Thank you for listening to the Democracy Paradox: A podcast on democracy, democratization, and world affairs. Each week you’ll learn about insights largely absent from traditional political discourse. These are complex ideas that might be unfamiliar so, I’ve provided a complete transcript at democracyparadox.com along with a review of today’s book. 

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Today’s guest is Miles Rapoport. He is the Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School and has also served as secretary of the state of Connecticut. His new book, coauthored with E.J. Dionne, is 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting. 

Miles makes a spirited argument for civic duty voting. It’s a reform that makes voting in elections mandatory. But what I found most interesting about this reform was the implications it has for the meaning and purpose of democracy. Unlike many reforms that strive to make democracy into a better version of the current model, it argues democracy is different when everyone participates. Its goals and purpose change. In many ways it becomes more democratic. So, here is my conversation with Miles Rapoport…

jmk

Miles Rappaport, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Miles Rapoport

Great, thank you, Justin. I’m very glad to be here.

jmk

Well, Miles, loved your book. I love the title, 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting. Now, when we think about voting, especially voting in a democracy, it’s widely viewed as not just a right, but also as a duty. It’s an interesting way to think about voting. Can you take a moment and just kind of tell us what does it mean to have a duty to vote in elections?

Miles Rapoport

You know, we toss off the idea of rights and duties being linked often in this country, but we don’t really explore what that means. I think in the matter of voting, our founding fathers said that we want it to be based on the consent of the governed. And for E.J. Dionne and I that really means something. That means the consent of all the governed, you know. And one of the ways in which to get the consent of all the governed is to make sure that everyone, every citizen, is voting as a matter of civic obligation. And interestingly, we do this now for jury duty. Everyone has to serve on a jury if you are called. And we don’t think of that as an imposition. So, we think that that same logic should extend to the area of voting.

jmk

It’s interesting that you bring up jury duty. There’s actually a line in the book. It’s not by you or EJ. It’s actually from Heather McGhee in the forward where she writes, “The right to serve on a jury or more properly, the right to be compelled to serve on a jury, was a major goal of the African-American community in the Civil Rights Movement.” And I bring this up because, it’s odd. We don’t talk about jury rights the way that we talked about voting rights. We talk about jury duty. Why don’t we talk about voting duties? And even more so to the point, how does it change how we think about voting when we interpret it as a duty rather than as a right?

Miles Rapoport

Well, as is the case with jury duty, it is what the culture is accustomed to. And in our case, in the United States, the idea of jury duty being a required act of citizenship is commonplace and has been for many, many years. And the reason for that is so that a defendant can be judged by a jury of their peers, i.e., a representative sample of the population as a whole. But in other countries like Australia, they have decided that that fundamental premise also should hold for democracy and the decisions of government.

And so, a hundred years ago in Australia, they decided to make voting a civic duty and there’s been no effort to repeal it. They get 90% turnout in pretty much every election. And it is apparently very, very popular. The election day, which is on a weekend in Australia, is a celebratory day. They have kind of democracy sausages which are stands that are set up outside every polling place. So, in that place, in that country, which is very similar in kind of ideas and ideology and notions of freedom to the United States, this has just been part of their culture and an easy part of their culture for a hundred years.

jmk

Can you tell us a little bit more about how civic duty voting actually works in Australia? How do they require voting? How do people receive it?

Miles Rapoport

Well, first of all, the, government and the political parties and political candidates and schools and all the civic institutions of the society make an incredibly energetic effort to let people know that elections are coming, to get people enrolled, is what they call it, on the polls. And once you are enrolled in the polls, then it is understood that you are required to vote unless you have a reason.

So, what happens is that after the election, they will take the relatively small number of people, usually about 10 or 12%, who haven’t voted, send you a letter saying, ‘Gee, you didn’t vote. How come?’ And if you give any reasonable answer about being sick on the day or being away on travel or having job requirements that’s accepted as an excuse. The only things that are not accepted is if you just don’t respond or if you say, ‘I just didn’t feel like it.’ And so, for a relatively, very small number of people, they send that letter twice. And if you don’t respond, then you get a fine that’s the equivalent of $15 in the United States, essentially like a parking ticket. It operates as a parking ticket.

jmk

Why was Australia the first to institute civic duty voting? Why did they think that this was a necessary reform for elections?

Miles Rapoport

Well, it’s an interesting bit of history which is that Australia also was one of the first nations to adopt a secret ballot which we did not have in the United States. So, in the late 1800s, the ballot being secret was a novel idea and it was actually called in the United States, the Australian ballot. So, they have been kind of on the leading edge of thinking about democracy for a very long time. What happened was in the early twenties, which was kind of the Progressive Era in the world after World War I, they decided that it was really important for every citizen to vote. And frankly, each political party decided, ‘Well, if the other party is going to get all their voters out, then let’s make sure that our voters come out as well.’

And so, there was a political angle to it as well. There’s another interesting bit of history. In the Massachusetts constitution at the same time in 1919, an amendment was adopted to the Massachusetts constitution explicitly giving the Massachusetts General Court the ability to enact compulsory voting. And that provision is still in the Massachusetts Constitution today from a hundred years ago and it was right about the same time as Australia.

jmk

Has it ever been enforced?

Miles Rapoport

It’s never been enacted. But what the constitution says is that the legislature can enact it. The legislature has never done that. There is a bill now in the Massachusetts legislature to enact universal civic duty voting. But I doubt it will pass right away. Our idea is to get this out into the public domain and then see if legislators in the states pick it up.

jmk

So, in Australia, just to get back to the history of how this really began, was it liberals or conservatives that were really pushing for the idea of civic duty voting?

Miles Rapoport

Well, it’s interesting. It was adopted first in several of the provinces of the country. Again, equivalent to our states. And the conservatives were actually in power when it was adopted nationwide. And at that time, the Labor Party which had strong backing from the labor unions, which were strong in Australia as they were here at the time decided, ‘Well, if the unions and the Labor Party are going to get all of these people out, because they have all of these foot soldiers. We don’t have that in the conservative party. So, let’s pass this vote.’ So, it was actually passed under Conservative rule to ensure that all the voters came out and not just the Labor Party voters.

jmk

So, it was passed, because the Conservatives wanted to stay in power. Did they stay in power or did they get voted out?

Miles Rapoport

Well, I’m not sure what happened in the very next election. Except I do know that the percentage of turnout in the election which was 60%, pretty much close to what we have now prior to it immediately shot up to 90% in the first election after universal voting was inactive. So, it clearly had a huge impact in terms of the level of participation.

jmk

Well, that is quite dramatic. I do want to kind of delve into the way that civic duty voting would impact elections, because this is going to be on everybody’s mind especially in the United States where we have a very polarized electorate. And both Republicans and Democrats, epecially Republicans these days, think about election law in terms of how’s this going to change the results of the elections, especially any kind of reforms that increase voting. They oftentimes interpret it as being an opportunity just to increase support for Democrats. So, how did civic duty voting change election outcomes in Australia? Did we see more leftist candidates elected? Did conservatives continue to compete in elections in Australia? How has their electoral history kind of evolved after we’ve had civic duty voting?

Miles Rapoport

Well, Australia has actually for a long time moved back and forth between Labor governments and Conservative governments. It has a Conservative government in now. So, obviously the Conservative Party has been able to compete successfully in a universal electorate. And it’s interesting… I mean, our approach, the authors of the book and the working group on Universal Voting, which was a joint project, the Brookings Institution and the Ash Center at Harvard, which sort of prefigured the work of the book. It’s really a democracy focus. It is not a partisan focus. And it’s interesting. We have some Democrats that have said, ‘Well, are you sure that this will help the Democratic Party?’ And, of course, we certainly have Republicans who have said, ‘Isn’t this just a ploy to help the Democratic Party?’

And the answer is it’s not clear either way. I mean, if you look at the 2020 elections, you know, there was a very strong turnout, much higher than usual among rural voters and voters with high school education or less. And those tended to be Republican voters, you know, during the 2020 election. All of the groups who are underrepresented in who actually vote now will go up. So, young voters will go up. Poor and less educated voters, voting turnout will go up. But it’s not clear that that will advantage one party or another. And so, we hope that we will be able to get some bipartisan support for this idea, because I think we can show that it doesn’t necessarily automatically advantage or disadvantage either party.

jmk

Now, even if in the short term, let’s say that the Democrats get a little bit more of the vote from civic duty voting after it’s enacted. I would imagine that politicians are going to learn to adapt to this expanded electorate. How do politicians typically adapt to an electorate that now composes 90% of voters, rather than just 60%?

Miles Rapoport

I think Australia is a proof of concept, but I do want to point out that there are 26 democratic countries around the world that use it. They all have very different mechanisms for enforcement and different kinds of penalties. And in some cases, there are no penalties. So, it’s a little hard to just sort of make a blanket conclusion, but here’s what we feel would happen. I mean, the very first and obvious thing, which is in controvertible is that turnout would go up. You know, there will always be people who fall through the cracks. But call it 80, 85, anywhere from 80 to 90% turnout as opposed to 50 to 60% turn out. That would be huge.

Secondly, the electorate would be much more reflective of all of the groups. So, the groups that have very high voting percentages now would definitely go up a little bit and the groups that have low voting percentages now or the parts of the electorate that have lower voting percentages now would definitely go up significantly. So, that would mean that the actual voting electorate would be much more reflective. Universally, genuinely reflective of the population as a whole. Now here’s where it gets interesting which is how would candidates or parties react? Well, first I want to say, I think the way that civil society would react would be to adapt itself to the notion that this is an obligation that every 18-year-old will have to undertake.

So, if I’m a principal at a high school and I know that every graduating senior is going to be required to vote, would that make me more likely to really emphasize civic education? I think it would. If I were an employer, whether a corporation or, you know, a hospital and my employees were required to vote, would that make me more likely to give them the time off to vote and make sure that they had the information they needed? Yes, I think it would. So, I think that, first, civil society would adapt to really encouraging people to be able to fulfill their obligations.

For the parties and the candidates, you know, if you have to talk to all of the voters, then I think it moderates to some degree what you can do. I mean, right now the really worst effects of the polarization that we’re seeing is that each party or each candidate tries like the Dickens to get out, quote ‘our vote.’ And in the worst-case examples tries to suppress the vote of the other people and trying to keep them home. Well, you can’t do that under universal civic duty voting, you know. Everybody is going to come out. There’s no value in ginning up your vote or trying to depress the other people’s votes. So, I think you will end up with parties and candidates who talk to everybody and I think that will be a healthy thing.

jmk

So, there was a recent New York Times article, literally, just a few days ago that was referring to the local state-run Democratic Parties accepting the new Republican laws that were going into effect. That these were the rules of the game that they were going to have to play within the current elections. And they were actually emphasizing how the amount of money that they’re going to have to spend on turnout is now going to be dramatically higher than what they’ve done in the past.

And even today, just the amount of money that parties in a normal election regularly spend to be able to turn out the vote is enormous. That’s what a lot of the money that is coming into elections is doing. It’s not about trying to convince voters or explain issues to voters, but just trying to actually draw people out to the polls. Can you talk a little bit about how that changes the dynamics of campaigns and campaign finance in this country?

Miles Rapoport

Yeah, I think it would change it in exactly the way you’re describing which is there would be tremendous savings to campaigns and parties on their voter turnout operations. They would still need to do some. And obviously people who need rides to the polls will still need rides to the polls and things like that. But I think it would definitely shift towards persuasion where, if, you know, that everybody is going to turn out and you don’t know who they are, you know, you need to try to reach out to everyone.

So, I think it would be much more, you know, door to door work among undecided voters. You know, probably more persuasive advertising rather than turn out advertising. And it’s not going to solve all the problems. It’s not going to magically make polarization disappear. But I do think that the exercise of candidates and parties having to speak with everyone and be aware that everyone is listening and everyone as an almost assured voter will make them persuade in a different way that might actually kind of narrow our polarization a little bit and move things a little bit back towards the middle which I think would be very healthy.

jmk

Miles, one of the things I was thinking about when I was reading your book was that this is very much a solutions-oriented book. We’re going to create a proposal that has a reform within it, because we’re going to provide solutions to problems. And it’s either going to do one of two things. It’s either going to solve problems or it’s going to alleviate other problems that exist. And so, there’s a string of different problems that we could include in that.

One of those is low voter turnout. Indisputably if you require people to vote, it’s going to if not solve dramatically, alleviate the problem of getting people out to vote. But another problem that you hint at or rather you actually make the case for is that it’s going to alleviate political polarization. How is it that requiring everybody to go out to vote is going to alleviate political polarization rather than exacerbating it?

Miles Rapoport

Well, I don’t want to sound like a complete Pollyanna. I mean, the political polarization in our society runs deep. You know, it runs along axes of ideology, also of race, also of class. And, you know, those things are, are not going to be solved with one particular reform. But I do think that, you know, by turning the entire population, including people with very strongly held views on the left or the right, but also people who don’t have strongly held views, not necessarily ideologically in the middle of the road. Maybe they’re just not really engaged in politics, but turning those people into participants in the process, I think requires candidates and parties to really reach out to everyone.

It also appears to be the case from studies of Australia and other countries that when you as a voter are required to vote, you actually do go out and educate yourself on the things because you don’t want to be uninformed when you go into the voting booth which you are going to do. I mean, it’s easy to say this doesn’t matter to me. I’m not going to vote. I don’t need to pay any attention, if you’re not going to vote. But if you do have to vote, it does motivate people to do that. So, I think citizens will be more engaged. I think the parties will have to get to everybody, not just their partisans. And I think that will be helpful.

One thing I want to add is that, you know, I don’t see universal voting to be something that is kind of imposed willy nilly from the top. It’s a sort of a North Star in my mind where we would like to get to which is full participation. The point here is not, ‘Gee. We like to penalize people.’ The point is we want a 100% democracy. But I think other reforms that make it easier for people to register, that give people more options in voting, maybe have pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, you know, all of the things that are on the agenda for opening up the voting process. We call those gateway reforms in the book. Those are important reforms as well, but this seems to me to be planting a flag further down the road to what we really want which is universal participation.

jmk

Let’s go ahead and put all the cards out on the table. Why don’t you go ahead and lay out what your proposal would be for the United States? We’ve talked a little bit about how it works in Australia and some other places. How would you envision civic duty voting actually functioning in the United States? what would be the proposal including any gateway reforms such as the ones you just mentioned? What else would be necessary to make this happen?

Miles Rapoport

Well, I should say that I think we are thinking of it as starting at both the municipal and the state level. Yes, you could have federal legislation that would mandate this. We don’t expect that to happen nor are we going to actively promote that, you know, once the book is out. But we do think that there will be municipalities and maybe some states around the country, especially those that already have in place good voter registration, higher level of active participation that might say, ‘Okay, this will spur us to do even better.’

So, let’s think of it at the state level. Let’s just say that would be that the state legislature in a state, call it Colorado, you know, which has very active and good procedures would say, ‘Okay, we’re going to pass a law that says that as of maybe, you know, four years down the road, all citizens 18 or older will be required to vote.’ It could also say, you know, ‘In preparation for that we will enact same day voter registration and we will advance our automatic voting registration and we will have clear policies about how to restore votes to people who have been incarcerated.’ You know, so a set of reforms that will make it much more possible.

And then if I were a legislator, I might say, ‘Okay, we’re going to enact this for the 2028 elections. And in 2024 we’re going to educate people in advance of that.’ And basically say, ‘If we were in 2028, you would be required to do this.’ You know, kind of send out the same letter saying as of 2028, this will happen. So, I’d like to see, you know, both a series of the gateway reforms and then a piece of legislation that has very mild penalties.

I think this is an important point so I’ll make it now. I think our idea is that any fine should be very modest. You know, $15 or $20 sounds like the right amount. And we should be ensuring that it doesn’t collect interest. There are penalties if you don’t pay it. It can’t be the basis for a civil warrant, because then you have the situation in which poor people, you know, have one more thing that gets on their record and, you know, escalates and escalates. So, we would want to design the legislation so that that would not happen. And similarly, so that anybody who was not an eligible voter, but who got all the information to say you must go out and must go out and vote. And does that in error, you know, would not be responsible for any fines or penalties.

So, I think there’s a lot of public education that would go into it. Some other people have said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it as an incentive? Why don’t you give everybody who votes a lottery ticket or a small tax break or something else?’ And I’m not opposed to that. Actually, it would be an interesting idea. And I can imagine some states trying to do that in general in the countries where this is most successful. There is some sort of an obligation and some sort of a small penalty attached to it. So, that’s, I think, the way we would want to go, but the legislation would have to be designed specifically by state legislators taking into account what the current laws are in their state.

jmk

Okay. I’ve got a couple of questions based on how you just drew it up. But the first one I’d like to raise is that we can be sure that every single one of the steps is done perfectly to be able to achieve universal voting. Some states are even going to do things differently than others, especially if it’s approached through state legislatures. So, what steps are necessary rather than just things that you’d like to see? What steps are really critical to making this get off the ground? Is the education piece a critical piece that if it’s not done right, that this whole proposal fails? Is it necessary to have fines and if you don’t do that, the entire proposal fails? What are the key pieces that are absolutely necessary that without them, the idea of it isn’t going to work?

Miles Rapoport

That’s a very good question. So, one is it absolutely requires some elected official or agency to be responsible for making sure that everything works and it works in concert with the laws. So, in many, many of the states that will be the secretary of the state. But in other states, the secretary of state doesn’t have responsibility for elections. There’s a state election board or some other thing, but someone will need to be kind of the responsible agency that’s job it is to make the whole thing work. Secondly, I do think that public education ought to be a requirement in legislation. That the energetic efforts obviously of the secretary of the state’s office are there, but also by the legislature itself. And local election officials should be required and properly funded to do the kind of education that will be necessary.

I do think, you know, that a fine would be appropriate. I could imagine it being phased in so that either, you know, for the first offense you don’t get the fine or in the first election you get a warning. So, that’s a possibility, but I think the things that are key are education, a clear statement of what the penalty is and what the procedures are, and an agency that is really going to take it as its responsibility to get it done and get it done right. And obviously, I think that this is a negative way of framing this, which is it would be very difficult for this to work in a state where there were other laws in place that were actively discouraging people from voting.

So, if you have onerous ID requirements and then you tell people and you must meet them that could be a problem. You know, if you don’t have any early voting and so you have to come and vote on a Tuesday in November and you get penalized if you don’t, I think that’s problematical. So, I think the more the whole system is welcoming and encouraging of people the better. But on the other hand, it’s very unlikely to happen. If you have a state legislature that is bound and determined for a few people to vote, I doubt they’re going to enact this law.

jmk

Yeah, and there’s obviously a lot of ways to be able to approach it. And state legislatures can obviously experiment with ways to go about it. Obviously, it’s important to understand the spirit of the idea rather than be focused on the letter of the idea itself, but you emphasize that state legislatures are the ones who need to enact this. Why not the federal government? Is it purely because of a constitutional issue that the state legislatures have essentially taken care of election law in the past or is it because of a philosophical reason? For instance, would you support a constitutional amendment that would require compulsory voting, if we could actually get one passed at sometime in the future?

Miles Rapoport

I don’t think that this would require a constitutional amendment at all. I mean, the constitution clearly gives to the federal government the right to create procedures for federal elections and obviously the state elections would go there too. But I think that, yes, you could absolutely pass federal legislation. Would I support federal legislation to make voting a civic duty for every citizen? Yes, I would. I would absolutely do that for federal elections. And then, you know, having served as secretary of the state in Connecticut, I know that when something comes down from the federal government that affects federal elections, states generally will change their state election laws to comply with it so you don’t have a system where, you know, you have different rules in place for the congressional elections and your gubernatorial elections in the state.

But, yes, I think federal action would be necessary, but I think this idea is so new and so different, you know, that the idea of states and municipalities being laboratories of democracy, I think, will certainly be applicable here. By the way it also could be done in municipalities. There are definitely some cities that have procedures that go beyond what the state does in terms of encouraging people to vote. Most places, you would need some form of state enabling legislation. So, it wouldn’t require state involvement, but I could see a city with a long kind of municipal history, Minneapolis St. Paul, some of the other cities in the Midwest giving this a try.

jmk

Is there any concern though that doing compulsory voting would be seen as unconstitutional? Is there any reason why if they passed compulsory voting in a state like Indiana or a state like Ohio, that that would be challenged in the courts?

Miles Rapoport

I think we are in a moment in our history where every electoral change in any direction is challenged in the courts. So, we would certainly expect this to meet a court test. We had a number of constitutional lawyers and election lawyers really examine this issue. We believe that this will pass constitutional muster. That this is not in any way an infringement on freedom of speech. You are not compelled in the legislation that we encourage to cast a vote for any particular candidate, obviously.

And you’re not even compelled to cast a vote for any candidate. We would recommend that any ballot have a none of the above option which they have now in one state, Arizona, and it works pretty well. Not very many people use it, but the fact that it’s there, I think, allows people to express their dissatisfaction with any of the candidates. So, we think that there is no compelled speech argument which would be the strongest one constitutionally. So, we think this will pass constitutional muster.

jmk

So, Miles, the elephant in the room that I haven’t brought up yet is the fact that most people are still opposed to the idea of civic duty voting in the United States. Why don’t people support this reform today? Let’s just lay the cards on the table on that issue.

Miles Rapoport

I’d say there are two reasons. And we, actually did some polling which makes it clear that just over a quarter of the people that are polled support this idea on first hearing. But I would say there are two reasons for it. One is that it’s a brand-new idea. And I think the first reaction that people have to a brand-new idea is, ‘Nah, we don’t do that here. You know, we don’t have required voting in the United States.’ So, I think that that’s one thing, which is just the newness of it. The second reason is there is a kind of a meme, I guess I would say, in the United States of American exceptionalism where we want an absolute minimum of coercion and that individual freedom should not be infringed upon in any way. And we get that.

But I think that if you start to think about it, and jury duty is a very good, clear example of it, there are many things that we are compelled to do for the good of the society as a whole. You know, whether it’s paying taxes, and I don’t mean to trivialize it, but I think this is an interesting example. So, when at, first, we were required to clean up after your pets, when you took them out for a walk, some people said this is an infringement. Why should I have to do this? But now everybody does it. It’s a matter of habit and our streets are a lot cleaner and a lot safer and a lot more sanitary than they were before these mandates, if you will, came into effect.

So, I think that, you know, what happens is that at first people say, ‘No, we don’t want it.’ At first, we say this is another infringement on our liberties, but I think if you really look at it and you really look how it’s worked in Australia or in Belgium or in Uruguay or in many other countries, you start to say, ‘Well, gee, maybe the value of having every single person registered in our elections far outweighs the small degree of compulsion which this represents,’ in the same way that serving on a jury has that responsibility as well.

And by the way, one last point, which is that in that same poll, 60% of the people said that they thought voting was both a right and a duty to go back to where you started at the very, very beginning. And so, if people do view voting as a right and a duty, then it doesn’t seem to me to be a large jump to say, if it is a civic duty then it is legitimate for the government whether it’s municipal state or federal level to require it.

jmk

So, one of the concerns that I have about changing public opinion is that when people think about something as an abstract idea, it’s oftentimes easier for them to support because the details aren’t available yet. Anytime that we start coming up with more specifics in terms of legislation, people start finding reasons why they oppose the legislation. A great example is the Affordable Care Act where just about everybody supported healthcare reform, but then when they laid it out on the table and said, this is what it’s going to look like. People started finding reasons why they were opposed to it.

Now, the positive thing is, is that people have generally started to support it after it’s been enacted. And when it became a question of do we want to actually repeal it. People started finding reasons why they liked it now. But if that’s the lesson for compulsory voting, it would be that you’d have to pass it, demonstrate to people that it’s not so bad before people began to support it. How are we going to change people’s minds so that we can enact it in the first place?

Miles Rapoport

That’s a good question and I think that the analogy that I might use to stay in the election space is with the idea of ranked choice voting which was introduced about 20 years ago and got very, very little pickup. You know, there was some discussion about it. A few kinds of, you know, small communities like Tacoma Park, Maryland and a couple of places in California adopted it. And then gradually as people saw the possibilities of making sure that there were no spoilers in elections and that if you voted for one candidate you weren’t, you know, by accident supporting the candidate that you like the least, it started to get picked up in far more municipalities.

And now it’s the law in the state of Maine and it was just passed by the legislature in the state of Alaska. So, you know, I think that that’s in a way, a trajectory, hopefully not for 20 years. You know, we start the discussion. People start to look at it. A couple of places will take the plunge and adopt it. And then we get to look at it from multiple sides. And I think once that happens and people see that people are voting in many, many ways and some of the corollary benefits that we talked about earlier are taking place then I think the popularity will increase and I expect to see it adopted in more places as we go along.

It’s an act of faith. I mean, I think, E. J. and I and Heather McGhee, who wrote the forward for the book, and the people who worked on the issue have a faith. You have to have a faith that a genuine democracy where everybody is involved. Everybody is included. Everybody has a voice. Everybody has a vote. Everybody exercises that vote will end us up in a better place and I firmly believe that. And I think that we should. We’re operating on that hope and that expectation.

jmk

I found one of the most remarkable ideas within the book was about how it would change the way that state administrators approach elections themselves where they now are tasked with ensuring that everybody gets out to vote rather than just giving people an opportunity or rather than just facilitating the process of voting. That they almost have an obligation to make sure that citizens actually exercise it. Because if not, voters are going to be upset that they’re fined, if they think that they didn’t really have a chance to get out there or weren’t aware of the election. Can you talk a little bit about how a 100% democracy would change the way that state election administration officials would have to change how they operate a little bit in terms of how they approach elections themselves?

Miles Rapoport

You know, I want to applaud as a group the election officials in this country. I mean, if you look back to 2020, they had to cope with trying to run an election during the middle of a pandemic. They made all kinds of quick arrangements. There were legal confusions, et cetera. And yet as a whole, the local election officials whether they be clerks or registrars or voters or however they’re described, you know, stepped up when they needed to and they really did their job. I think this will have the same effect which is that I think that, again, on first hearing, ‘Well, we’ve always done it a different way.’ You know, there’s a little bit of a resistance to change. There was when same day voter registration, you know, was first enacted in just a couple of states.

And now, you know, more than half of the states in the country use same day registration and automatic voter registration. But I think this would dramatically change the culture in the election reform community which is you would then have as your principal duty to make sure that people have the information, the tools that they need and that the systems are set up to allow them to fulfill their civic obligation, their legal obligation in the easiest and most convenient way possible. So, I do think that the best practices would be shared among election officials rapidly. And I think you’d see election officials really start to move in the direction of affirmatively reaching out to make sure that people are voting as opposed to kind of being more passive and whoever shows up, shows up.

jmk

Yeah, and in the book, it wasn’t so much election officials. I probably phrased that wrong. It’s more of the people who are strategizing about the implementation of the election itself. And that includes legislators. That includes governors. That includes the secretary of state. The way that they’re approaching election law is oftentimes, ‘How should we facilitate voter registration?’ And a lot of the expectation is that the onus should be on the individual. That if you don’t actually want to register, that’s going to be on the voter. This definitely turns the tide where now the onus is on the state itself to be able to make sure that voters have the opportunity to be registered, that they have the opportunity to get out to vote.

In fact, registration may not even be a question because it’d be automatic registration. So, it just changes the way that we even think about how elections are run and what the obligations of the state and the government are in terms of working with voters to make sure that they have a chance to have their say.

Miles Rapoport

Well, if I were a legislator, which I was for 10 years in Connecticut, I would certainly put into the legislation, you know, some funding and some requirements to do the public education work that is necessary. And if I were the governor of the state or the secretary of the state, which I was, I would be out on the soap box every time telling people this is going to become everyone’s obligation and everyone’s opportunity. Again, I think the spirit of the law is to make voting a participatory and engaging part of our civic life. But I would absolutely make it a major part of my job to make sure that people understood what their responsibilities were and that all the systems were put in place and funded properly to make it possible for citizens to do that with a minimum of problem.

jmk

So, the title of the book is 100% Democracy. But when we talk about compulsory voting, if that is the approach that we’re doing, we’re just trying to require people to vote. We’re really only going to be requiring people to vote who already are allowed to vote. And there’s a number of different people who are not given the right to vote in the United States. Who else should be allowed to vote today that is currently not allowed to?

Miles Rapoport

As I said earlier, there are a set of other reforms. By the way, the title of the book is 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting and I think that is really our idea and our hope that voting becomes a universal civic act. But in terms of people who are not currently allowed to vote, I think that there are some real issues. First, about citizens who are incarcerated. Every state has different laws, you know, whether people can vote when they come out of prison or whether they have to pay all their fines which they now do in Florida, as we know, or whether they can vote if they’re on probation or parole. So, I think clarifying that and making it clear that at least when people come out of prison and they have paid their sentence, they’re immediately allowed to vote.

I think that would be an important clarification. In Maine and Vermont people there actually do not lose their right to vote even when they’re incarcerated. And then there’s a question about, I think 16- and 17-year-olds, you know, there are some communities that are moving toward allowing 16-year-olds to vote. I personally would favor that, but the point of the book is to try to get one idea on the table, not to engage in every single election controversy. But I think for young people and for people who are incarcerated, those are two groups that really we ought to expand.

jmk

Do you think that 16 would be the right voting age or do you think it should be even younger, by chance?

Miles Rapoport

I think I’m in the 16-year-old category right now. In many states they do have pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds so that you can actually register to vote while you’re still in high school. And I think that’s important. And then you’re automatically put on the rolls when you turn 18. So, I think that would be a major step forward. I do think that, you know, people who in high school and were alert, getting civic education or learning about the way government works, I think that’s important. You know, I’d be interested in hearing cases for going below that, but if we can do 16-year-olds, I think that’d be great.

jmk

So, we’ve been talking a lot about how civic duty voting will change the way that the government, the way that the states and the federal government have to approach elections. How would civic duty voting change how citizens themselves view elections and voting, particularly citizens who don’t vote right now?

Miles Rapoport

I think overall what would happen is that a new empowering world would open up for people who have been outside of the political process for whatever reason, you know, because they don’t like the candidates or they are too busy in their lives, et cetera. But I think that when you have an obligation to vote, it makes it more likely that a person is going to educate themselves, get information.

By the way, one interesting thing I think is that right now the way it works is that campaigns focus when they’re sending out literature, when their candidates going door to door, on likely voters, which might be 50% of the population. I can remember when I was running for office people said only stop at the doors where they’re registered. If you see people who are sitting out on their stoops, but they’re not registered, just walk on by. And I think this changes that. Which is that every single person is a voter. So, every single person whether they have voted 20 times in the last 20 elections or they voted no times in the last elections, they are going to be participants.

So, I think candidates and campaigns would dramatically change in the way and the people to whom they reach out. And once, you are on the list and you got the flyers and you got the visits from the candidates and you got the phone calls, you know, it made you pay more attention and it made you feel involved. So, if we did that for every citizen, I think every citizen would feel more involved.

jmk

Well, Miles, thanks for joining me. On the one hand, as an American, it feels like a radical idea, but on the other hand, it also is such a remarkably simple idea. So, it’s a great book. Thank you so much for writing it.

Miles Rapoport

You know, it’s interesting. I’ll make one last comment if I can. And that is that, you know, I have worked on voting issues for 35 years for same-day registration and for opening up the process to younger people and preregistration and, you know, nevertheless 35 years later we’re still at 60 and 65%. 2020 was the highest turnout election ever and it was at 66%. So, I started to think about, well, what is it that could really, really move the needle and change the game. And that’s what got me interested in looking at this reform in a serious way. And the more I looked at it and the more I worked with E.J. Dionne, my wonderful coauthor, the more we said, let’s get this idea out into the public domain. And that’s what we hope to do with 100% Democracy. So, thanks for having me.

Key Links

100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting by Miles Rapoport and E.J. Dionne

Learn about Miles Rapoport at Harvard University

Lift Every Voice: The Urgency of Universal Civic Duty Voting 

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Shari Davis Elevates Participatory Budgeting

Lee Drutman Makes the Case for Multiparty Democracy in America

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