An historic geopolitical seismic shift began with the cry, “No taxation without representation.” That grievance, voiced by colonists during the 1700s, was a primary impetus for a revolution… the founding of the United States of America. Previously, the American colonies were considered by the English government as a commercial venture whose purpose was to enrich the homeland and defray costs of defense and administration. According to the English Bill of Rights (1869), the consent of Parliament was a requirement for imposition of taxes; there was no such direct colonial representation. Much debate and argument ensued over the type of representation – virtual or direct – required to conform to the law. In the meantime, tax levies such as the Sugar Tax and Stamp Tax were imposed and resentment festered among the colonists. The infamous Tea Tax prompted a rebellious Boston Tea Party in 1773 by the Sons of Liberty. Eloquent orators such as Patrick Henry and Benjamin Franklin argued the colonial cause.
Sentiment of 1700s has endured and echoed through the centuries since the upstart colonial radicals declared the birth of a new country. Most who endure the imposition of taxes understand that the justification for such payments is mutual protection and support. With proper representation, the hope is that such levies will be controlled and reasonable. However, as with any equation between the governed and government, this balance can be disrupted by malfeasance, corruption and incompetence. No matter what level of government is involved, a critical component of the process is engagement and participation by those tasked with selecting competent representation. Unfortunately, if participation declines, so does competency. A motivated minority is allowed to usurp political power, legal prerogatives and, ultimately, many essential elements of public life. This passivity saps the strength and vigor of a democratic society and defaults to authoritarianism.
Finding an effective antidote to this malaise has been the dilemma of democracy proponents confronted by threats of indifference and ignorance. Participation in elections is at the root of democracy and yet many eligible voters feel disenfranchised with no inclination to take time to mark a ballot or understand issues, opening themselves to emotional appeals of dubious validity. On the good news side of things, complaints of long wait times at polls and busy schedules have been offset recently by heightened interest and increased recognition of vote relevance. According to some surveys, even non-voters understand the importance of voting. [Longley, Robert. “Why Don't More Americans Vote?” ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2019, thoughtco.com/why-dont-more-americans-vote-3322088]. So how do we support voter enthusiasm and ensure continued participation and meaningful representation?
Compulsory voting in 22 nations around the world is one tactic to combat this malady, however enforced in only half of them. Although a laudatory attempt to bolster democracy, a question of vote quality remains. After all, you may force someone to the polls, but how will they actually vote and with what information and interest?
Early voting and vote by mail have made significant inroads into participation so, in 2016, California adopted the Voters Choice Act, inaugurated with a 2018 pilot program in five counties. This year, it has expanded to at least four more counties including Santa Clara County and will be open to all counties in 2020. This is a bold experiment and will hopefully not only increase participation, but heighten interest in candidates, ballot measures and propositions. Instead of electing to vote by mail, all registered voters will automatically receive a ballot in the mail. The choice of how and where to vote is up to the voter. The ballot can be mailed, dropped off at a ballot drop box or at a “Vote Center” where replacement ballots, voting machines, registration and additional services will be available. No longer will a voter be restricted to a specific voting location.
According to the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters, “…there is no longer a wrong place to vote which has the added benefit of reducing the number of provisional ballots issued and cast.” And, “Starting 10 days before the Election and through the Friday before Election Day, one vote center is required for every 50,000 registered voters. On Election Day and the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday leading up to Election Day, one vote center is required for every 10,000 registered voters.” Will this lead to higher participation and attention to the electoral process? The results are yet to be determined, but it’s a step in the right direction.