It’s been nearly two months since the June elections, and still people across the political spectrum are talking about the record low turnout, and offering all kinds of analysis of what happened and a variety of ideas about what should be done.
But the most direct approach for guaranteeing higher turnout has yet to be suggested. That approach? A guarantee of a high turnout.
That’s not a fiction; it’s a legal fact. In some countries, there are “turnout quotas” for some elections. They can work in slightly different ways, but the gist is that for the results of an election to be considered valid, a minimum number of voters – the quota – must show up.
Turnout quotas are blunt instruments, but they do provide insurance against big decisions being made by very small number of voters – or what we call political reality in California. Not enough voters, no valid election.
How might this work? Well after a June election that saw turnout of just a quarter of those registered (and less than one-fifth eligible to vote), we’d have to decide what we’d need to have a proper election. Maybe it’s too high a mark, but why not half – 50 percent – of registered voters at least?
What would change in such a system? Turnout would be more contested. Certainly, campaigns (at least those who saw hope of winning) would commit themselves not merely to getting their voters out, but getting enough voters out to get a valid election. State and local elections officials would also be more determined to boost turnout – particularly if the rule were that an election must be done again until there is sufficient turnout. The fear of endless costly elections would cause many officials to devote more resources to reaching voters and getting them out.
At the same time, turnout quotas would likely spark campaigns to discourage voting. It’s easier to convince someone to sit out an election than it is to get him or her to show up and vote a certain way. Interests opposed to measures could ask people to stay home.
Still, a turnout quota is worth considering – and forcing people to respond to. Right now, for all the handwringing about turnout, it’s not clear how seriously people see low turnout as a concern. Proposing turnout quotas would either produce a more substantive debate (particularly if the concern about low turnout is real) or expose the last two months of commentary as hollow.