ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
We came across this interesting proposal in a paper thats aimed at addressing the crisis in the U.S. economy. The proposal requires citizens to vote. The paper is by William Galston of the Brookings Institution. It's called "Economic Growth and Institutional Innovation: Outlines of a Reform Agenda." And some of those reforms are about sorting out the government's fiscal problems and mandating personal savings.
But to do that, Galston says we have to soften the polarized political climate. And to do that, he says, we should make voting not just a civil right but a legal obligation. William Galston joins us in the studio. Hi.
Dr. WILLIAM GALSTON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Good to be here.
SIEGEL: What would we gain if people were required to vote?
Dr. GALSTON: Well, first of all, we'd gain a lot of voters. Let me tell you why I believe that. Australia, in the early part of the 20th century, suffered a decline in political participation. In the election of 1922, participation was down to 59 percent from 71 percent in the previous election. And so, without a lot of fuss in the Australian parliament, they passed a law making voting mandatory.
Guess what? In the next election of 1925, participation was up by 32 percentage points to 91 percent, and it stabilized ever after at about 95 percent of the population.
SIEGEL: Now, you could argue that greater participation of the electorate is a good in and of itself, no further argument need be made. But is there anything about Australian governance or politics that we can look at that you would attribute to the participation that we'd say, well, that's a benefit of 90 percent of the people voting?
Mr. GALSTON: Well, I've been doing a lot of work on political polarization in the United States lately. I'm not the only one to be doing that work, and we've all reached the same conclusion, namely that our political system is as polarized as it has been since the 1890s and that that is getting in the way of a number of national discussions that we need to have in order to begin to solve some of these long-unsolved and apparently intractable problems.
One of the difficulties is that with a voluntary voting system, only the people who are most strongly motivated to vote, usually by anger or discontent or antipathy, show up. And the people in the middle tend to show up less. They could provide the leavening in our political system. And so, part of this sinister plot is an effort to get more of these less-motivated, moderate voters into the electorate. I personally believe that would be a wonderful thing, others may differ.
SIEGEL: Some might say it's not that the people who are not voting are centrist or not angry, they're more interested in the balloon boy who flies over Colorado or in strange things. They don't care about what's going on in the government.
Mr. GALSTON: Well, day by day they may not care, but over a year or two years or four years, they become very dismayed by what they see. And as their dismay increases, their tendency to withdraw also increases, and it's a vicious cycle. I think we need to do something to break that cycle.
SIEGEL: ABC conducted a poll on this question a few years ago, in 2004, and 72 percent of Americans opposed the idea of being required to vote or be fined. In other words, a larger share of people than vote, I would assume, in the ABC sample, said they don't think we should be required to vote. Is it a non-starter, given American attitudes toward what the government should tell them what to do?
Mr. GALSTON: In the short term, maybe. But one of my functions as a Brookings scholar is to stimulate longer-term national discussions with the hope that over time, sentiments will change. And sentiments do change in response to public dialogue.
If you doubt that, look at the enormous change in the past 17 years on don't ask, don't tell. So, national dialogues can change national policy over time, and that's a process I deeply believe in.
SIEGEL: William Galston, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. GALSTON: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: William Galston, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, is the author of a paper called "Economic Growth and Institutional Innovation: Outlines of a Reform Agenda."