Almost every service or object we buy in North Carolina is subject to taxation and every adult is a taxpayer. Our country’s founders held that taxation without representation is tyranny. But many adult taxpayers are being pushed away from the polls. These citizens are being denied representation.
Barriers to voting are being erected by legislators seeking to choose their voters, rather than have the voters select their legislators. These self-interested officials protect their positions through aggressive gerrymandering and a new requirement that voters produce an approved photo identification when they vote. As Governor Cooper has said, the photo ID bill is designed to keep people of color, poor people and the elderly away from the polls.
What would happen if we looked at voting differently-- not as a test to be passed but as a duty of every citizen--just like paying taxes? We pay taxes because we all benefit from the roads, schools, clinics, law enforcement, trash pickup, clean water, sewer and other shared services and we cannot organize alone. Taxes are the price of a functioning society. Showing up at the polls is the price of maintaining a representative government.
Duty often accompanies privilege. Our democracy will be stronger if we determine that citizenship comes with certain obligations. Voting should be mandatory for every eligible adult. Voting should also be convenient, with neighborhood polling places, two weeks or more to vote, and (for national elections) a national holiday on election day. Exceptions would be made, of course, but the general rule would be that every North Carolinian would have a legal duty to vote in every election.
No one would be compelled to agree to the choices presented on the ballot. Citizens could simply vote “present”, “none of the above” or write in candidates. Universal participation would serve as a reminder that we are all in this together.
Some will object that requiring people to vote is a violation of free speech rights. However, we insist upon other duties of citizenship, including registering for the draft, answering the census and filing accurate tax forms. Similarly, the only voting requirement would be casting a ballot and acknowledging your presence as a citizen. One would not be required to express any opinion. Currently 22 nations have laws requiring citizens to vote, though not all these countries enforce the law.
One need only turn to any media source to know we are a state and a nation being purposefully divided by special interests. Some politicians and many partisans have made careers out of playing only to a narrow base-- pitting us against one another. If every citizen were sure to vote, elected officials would have to listen to and serve all of us. This would lead to better constituent service on the local level and more compromise on the state level, as candidates and elected officials would know that every citizen will hold them accountable on election day. It would be difficult to get elected without offering policies that address a broad constituency that includes voters from a cross-section of racial, religious, gender and economic groups. Candidates and elected officials would be compelled to listen attentively to more of their constituents.
Involving more people is also likely to lead to better policies. Aristotle observed that the consensus opinion of a large group of people is often superior to the estimate of an expert. The “wisdom of the crowd” has been repeatedly documented. We can take a significant step toward better governance by involving more citizens in the process.
Modern day tyrants may want to impose minority rule. North Carolina should choose instead to build an even more robust democracy.
J. Adam Abram is Chairman of James River Group Holdings, Ltd., which has offices and employees in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. He lives in Chapel Hill.