Saturday, September 27, 2008

Compulsory Turnout?

With the ever increasing partisan divide and voter participation rates steady at about 50% to 60% in presidential contests, the key to winning in general elections is turnout. And the key to success is turning out one’s ideological base. Whichever party does a better job getting its base to the polls reaps the rewards of majority status. And what’s the best way to get the base to show up at the voting booth? Focus on divisive issues that underscore the differences between the parties.

It has been suggested that compulsory voting may influence the focus of a campaign towards swinging voters, with candidates and political parties trying to win the votes of the undecided, rather than motivating their "base" supporters to the polls. Thus it could be argued that politicians might adopt more centrist and less extreme policies in order to appeal to the relatively small group of swinging voters, rather than to their broader base constituencies.

Over twenty countries in the world including Singapore, Cyprus, Greece, Austria and Belgium, have forms of mandatory voting which require their citizens to register to vote and to go to their polling place or vote on election day. However one of the most well-known compulsory voting systems is in Australia.

All eligible Australian citizens over the age of 18 must be registered to vote and show up at the poll on election day. Those who do not vote are subject to fines although those who are incapable of voting on election day can have their fines waived.

Compulsory voting in Australia was adopted in the province of Queensland in 1915 and subsequently adopted nationwide in 1924. With Australia's compulsory voting system, there is additional flexibility built in for the voter - elections are held on Saturdays, absent voters can vote in any state polling place, and voters in remote areas can vote before an election (at pre-polling voting centers) or via mail.

Voter turnout of those registered to vote in Australia was as low as 47% prior to the 1924 compulsory voting law. In the decades since 1924, voter turnout has hovered around 94% to 96%. In 1924, Australian officials felt that compulsory voting would eliminate voter apathy. However, compulsory voting now has its detractors. In their Fact Sheet on Voting, the Australian Electoral Commission provides some arguments in favor and against compulsory voting.

Some arguments in favour of compulsory voting:

-Voting is a civic duty comparable to other duties citizens perform (e.g. taxation, compulsory education, or jury duty).
-Government reflects more accurately the "will of the electorate."
-Governments must consider the total electorate in policy formulation and management.
-Candidates can concentrate their campaigning energies on issues rather than encouraging voters to attend the poll.
-Voter are not actually compelled to vote for anyone because voting is by secret ballot.

Some arguments against compulsory voting:

-It is undemocratic to force people to vote - an infringement of liberty.
-The "ignorant" and those with little interest in politics are forced to the polls.
-It may increase the number of spoiled votes.
-It increases the number of safe, single-member electorates - political parties then concentrate on the more marginal electorates.
-Resources must be allocated to determine whether those who failed to vote have "valid and sufficient" reasons.

Advocates of compulsory voting might argue that such a system has a higher degree of representation, and that low voter participation in a voluntary election is in itself an expression of the citizenry's political will and could indicate satisfaction with the political establishment in an electorate.

Either way, with compulsory voting general political apathy is harder to find and that's always a good thing.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

What Makes People Vote Republican?

Why in particular do working class and rural Americans usually vote for pro-business Republicans when their economic interests would seem better served by Democratic policies? Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of moral psychology at the University of Virginia, examines why. With the seemingly return of the culture wars and general hate being flung from across both sides of the aisle in recent days, this essay might be intriguing to some.

For my dissertation research, I made up stories about people who did things that were disgusting or disrespectful yet perfectly harmless. For example, what do you think about a woman who can't find any rags in her house so she cuts up an old American flag and uses the pieces to clean her toilet, in private? Or how about a family whose dog is killed by a car, so they dismember the body and cook it for dinner? I read these stories to 180 young adults and 180 eleven-year-old children, half from higher social classes and half from lower, in the USA and in Brazil. I found that most of the people I interviewed said that the actions in these stories were morally wrong, even when nobody was harmed. Only one group—college students at Penn—consistently exemplified Turiel's definition of morality and overrode their own feelings of disgust to say that harmless acts were not wrong. (A few even praised the efficiency of recycling the flag and the dog).

This research led me to two conclusions. First, when gut feelings are present, dispassionate reasoning is rare. In fact, many people struggled to fabricate harmful consequences that could justify their gut-based condemnation. I often had to correct people when they said things like "it's wrong because… um…eating dog meat would make you sick" or "it's wrong to use the flag because… um… the rags might clog the toilet." These obviously post-hoc rationalizations illustrate the philosopher David Hume's dictum that reason is "the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them." This is the first rule of moral psychology: feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete. If people want to reach a conclusion, they can usually find a way to do so. The Democrats have historically failed to grasp this rule, choosing uninspiring and aloof candidates who thought that policy arguments were forms of persuasion.

The second conclusion was that the moral domain varies across cultures. Turiel's description of morality as being about justice, rights, and human welfare worked perfectly for the college students I interviewed at Penn, but it simply did not capture the moral concerns of the less elite groups—the working-class people in both countries who were more likely to justify their judgments with talk about respect, duty, and family roles. ("Your dog is family, and you just don't eat family.") From this study I concluded that the anthropologist Richard Shweder was probably right in a 1987 critique of Turiel in which he claimed that the moral domain (not just specific rules) varies by culture. Drawing on Shweder's ideas, I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label "elitist." But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?

In today's New York Times, In No Laughing Matter Judith Warner adds:

Haidt has conducted research in which liberals and conservatives were asked to project themselves into the minds of their opponents and answer questions about their moral reasoning. Conservatives, he said, prove quite adept at thinking like liberals, but liberals are consistently incapable of understanding the conservative point of view. “Liberals feel contempt for the conservative moral view, and that is very, very angering. Republicans are good at exploiting that anger,” he told me in a phone interview.

Haidt also explores the meaning of morality and describes his experiences in a Hindu community in the early 90's, in which a he witnessed a hierarchical society with clearly defined gender and class roles. This gave him insight into why some in his own country might be attracted to similarly ordered social structures.

It really is a good read and I think helpful to framing the conversation in the upcoming weeks.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What The Hell Is Going On?

A new Gallup poll suggests the RNC post-convention bump may now be affecting down ticket congressional races.

Today's released USA Today/Gallup poll posting generic Democratic or Republican candidates, show a Democrats’ double-digit ballot lead shrinking to just 48% to 45%, within the 3% margin of error.

That is a dramatic shift from a consistently shown a strong advantage for Democrats throughout most of the year (actually Democrats have led in the Gallup generic ballot measure since early 2004)

More startling is the Republicans’ new advantage among likely voters. While the Democrats lead by 3 among registered voters, likely voters say they will vote for a generic Republican candidate over a generic Democrat by a 50-45 margin. Prior to the DNC convention, this number favoured the Democrats by a 51-42 margin.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted over the same span also showed a 3% gap, 49-46, while other polls from this week have seen the generic ballot narrowing but still clearly favouring Democrats by 7 or 8...

Now while these results come from a September 5-7 survey conducted immediately after the Republican National Convention - what the hell is going on?