There's an interesting exchange on the letters page of the September 28 New York Review of Books on the subject of voting. Peter Heerey, the former chair of the Australian Electoral Commission, comments on a recent article by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen, two Nobel prize winning economists, favoring the Instant Runoff Voting system by noting that Australia has a ranked-preference system similar to what the economists advocate. As a reminder, the idea is to rank all the candidates running for office in order of preference, so that if your first choice is eliminated for failing to meet a threshold of minimal support, your vote will count instead for your second choice. Around the world, the real driving idea behind such arrangements is to enable people to vote their consciences for left-of-center candidates without guaranteeing the election of right-of-center candidates. Heerey notes that Australian elections have a safeguard against extremism in the form of compulsory voting. "Arguably compulsory voting lessens the need to appeal to a party's hard-core supporters, to make sure they vote," he writes, "Thus debate tends to be less polarized."
Maskin and Sen respond with a cautionary note about compulsory voting, which might not achieve optimum results in American elections. "According to US data, citizens who don't vote tend to be less well informed about candidates and issues than those who do," they writes, "Compulsory voting might well introduce a raft of additional voters who are more susceptible to the false claims and simplistic solutions of extremists."
In Australia, compulsory voting apparently minimizes extremism, while American observers fear that it would empower extremists. Why the difference? The appealing answer would be that Australians, being obliged to vote, feel obliged to educate themselves on the issues. By educating themselves, they immunize themselves, presumably, against "false claims and simplistic solutions." How likely is this, actually, in the land where Rupert Murdoch was born, or anywhere? It sounds more plausible to assume that Australia requires people to vote whether they've bothered informing themselves or not. This, in fact, could explain the moderating effect of compulsory voting, since candidates must appeal to voters who, as Heerey claims, most likely aren't really politicized, much less radicalized. If the U.S. is different in a way that makes an extremist result more likely, would that be because more uninformed people would be voting, or because more people would be voting who have already been radicalized? Many Americans claim that they don't vote because the major parties have nothing to offer them. Such people aren't necessarily uninformed about issues, though they may be uninformed about solutions, or they may have their own ideas about solutions that aren't usually echoed by the major parties. It might be premature even for Nobel laureates to dismiss all their ideas as "simplistic," and their forced entry onto the voter rolls might influence election campaigns the other way round from what Maskin and Sen fear. It might not be a matter of these marks falling naively for some demagogue's "false claims and simplistic solutions," but of canny politicians adopting more extreme positions simply as a matter of reaching out to a potentially critical mass of new voters. In short, if similar electoral systems were to produce radically different results in two countries, something other than "uninformed" voters would most likely be behind it. If compulsory voting in the U.S. would produce a more extreme or radical result, the most likely reason is that Americans already are more radical than Australians. The question than becomes whether elections should be arranged to prevent extreme or radical results or whether they should, as Maskin and Sen appear to believe, reflect "what voters really want."