Voting counts. Maybe it should pay, too.

Loud proclamations of the superiority of democracy.  Deep-pocketed commitments of American military might and treasure. Considering the enormity of America’s hopes for the democratic ideal around the world, one would assume that citizens here at home understand that democracy’s most sacred rite—voting—counts.  That assumption, however, turns out to be false. Look to the 2010 midterm elections for evidence: Only 41.6% of the citizenry bothered to show up.

In contrast, take a look at what is happening in the Middle East. Recently Egypt held a national referendum to amend its constitution—a referendum that represented the country’s first legitimate vote in fifty-nine years. Speaking with Western journalists as he stood in line, sixty-five-year-old Om Sayad explained eloquently,  “I am here for my sons and my grandsons. The country is finally ours and we will never let it slip again by staying at home when we should be right here, in line, to make our voices heard.”

That kind of passion was in evidence as well in the fragile democracy that is Iraq, where, in 2005, the country held its first free and fair election in forty years.  A whopping 72% of eligible voters left the polling stations and walked out onto the streets proudly displaying their blue digits.

In contrast, American voter turnout is suffering from a chronic case of anemia. And there’s no doubt that our political discourse and national priorities are skewed because of it.  Imagine telling a group of one hundred people that “we’ve got some tough problems here, and it’s just going to get tougher. But don’t worry. We don’t need fifty-nine of you because forty-one of us can make the decisions for all of us affecting job creation, taxes, wages, health care, military spending, energy, and climate change.”

And the low number of voters is not a new phenomenon.  Paltry voter turnout has been in evidence in the previous seven elections. Just take a look at the percentage of eligible voters who actually voted, and it becomes evident why many Americans feel government does not reflect their interests:

Election year Voter turnout
1996 49.1%
1998 36.4%
2000 51.3%
2002 37%
2004 55.3%
2006 37.1%
2008 56.9%

Even more damaging is that the banality of our national discourse and the increasingly outrageous claims of what the majority of Americans believe can be traced to the fact that politicians actually don’t know what the majority thinks. And why should they? The majority isn’t bothering to tell them.  This silence ensures that  opinions can, at the very least, be ignored and, at worst, be misrepresented and fabricated.

And our sister democracies?  The World Policy Institute’s 1995 sampling of voting rates demonstrates that Europe’s democracies are alive, well, and kicking.

Country Voting rate
Belgium 93%
France 65%
Germany 78%
Greece 77%
Italy 89%
Norway 78%
Spain 70%
United Kingdom 76%

One of the most successful remedies for low voter turnout turns out to be compulsory voting—the historical norm in twenty countries in Europe, South and Central America, the Middle East, and Asia.

Where voting is compulsory, it is considered not just a right but a civic duty—like  paying taxes or jury duty.  Studies demonstrate that compulsory voting increases turnout and decreases economic disparities in electoral participation. These same studies show that when citizens know they are required to vote, they pay closer attention to the issues and go to the polls better informed.

The poster child for compulsory voting is Australia.  There individuals over the age of 18—except those convicted of serious crimes or unsound of mind—must register and be present to vote on federal election days.  If not, an individual is subject to a fine of $20.  If the fine goes unpaid the voter scofflaw may be taken to court and fined an additional $50. The initial $20 doesn’t seem like much, but it gets the job done.  Since compulsory voting and the fine were brought into effect in 1924, the participation rate has come in at between 94 to 96%. Prior to 1924 the participation rate was closer to the American average at 47%.

And what happens in countries where compulsory voting was the historical norm but has in recent times been eliminated?  In two countries—the Netherlands and Venezuela—where voting was once compulsory but is now voluntary, the voting rate has plummeted 20% and 30% respectively.

Is compulsory voting the solution in the U.S.?  Polls consistently show Americans rejecting it.  Recognizing, however, that higher turnout needs to be encouraged, states have taken steps to increase convenience.  Early voting, election-day registration, longer hours at polling stations, and sample ballots mailed in advance are some of the encouragements.

These efforts have nibbled at the edges of the problem but hardly turned the corner on apathy. What will it take to get a majority of eligible voters to the polls when  appeals to the better angels of civic involvement have failed?

A more successful approach might involve behavior modification, a dose of positive feedback, or even an appeal to the fun factor.  Why not combine them all?  Remember Australia’s $20 fine for not voting? Let’s turn the idea around.

Start by converting our voting machines into something less boring and unprofitable. Splash on a bit of bright color.  Add some bells, whistles, and pop music video-game style.  And a coin slot—Vegas style.

Imagine it.  It’s 2012. Go to your polling place. Get in line. Close the curtain. Mark your ballot. Drop your vote into the color-splashed machine.  Hold out your hand as twenty shiny dollar coins drop down into your waiting palm while musical accompaniment proclaims you a winner. Then slip out from behind that curtain feeling satisfied that you—as a privileged American voter—can walk away with a little more cash in your pocket just for showing up for a few moments to exercise a right that you take for granted, but that others in far-flung places around the world are fighting and dying for.