As a newcomer to the U.S., arriving in the months leading up to a Presidential election, I am struck by the apparent polarization of the American media into red and blue extremes. The most recent conspicuous example was the respective coverage by Fox News and MSNBC of the leaked Mitt Romney tapes (or, one might say, lack of coverage with regard to the former). As one U.S. political correspondent for Australia noted recently, “It is almost as though there are two elections going on in the U.S., each entirely independent of the other. Each side has its own set of facts, and each side is becoming increasingly baffled and frustrated that its opponent will not accept it.”
A notable contrast between U.S. and Australian federal elections is that in Australia, voting in elections is compulsory, and has been since 1924, when a bill to that effect was passed without dissent by both Houses of Parliament. In the first federal election following the establishment of compulsory voting (which is enforced by a system of fines), voting turnout rose to 91.4%, up from 59.38% in the previous, non-compulsory, election.
A compulsory voting system is controversial for a number of reasons, not which of least is the philosophical objection that participating in elections is a civic right, not a duty, and the transformation of that right into a duty constitutes infringement of a basic freedom of the citizen. More particularly, some legal scholars would argue that compulsory voting constitutes a compelled speech act, which as such violates freedom of speech (which necessarily includes freedom not to speak).
On the other hand, there is no disputing that compulsory voting ensures a large voter turnout, with implications for political legitimacy (depending on how it is defined). Beyond that, it is interesting to speculate on whether forcing the center vote to “pick a side” could cause the presently polarized parties to seek more centrally appealing and less partisan rhetoric, policies, and politics. I am not suggesting that a move to compulsory voting is desirable, or will ever be politically feasible in the U.S. (Australia is the only first-world, Western democratic nation to enforce such a system), but I note that coming from a country in which the two major political parties (Australian Labor Party and the Liberal/National Coalition) must compete for the center to win the right to govern, the contrast with the U.S. in terms of partisanship and polarization in our election seasons is stark and notable.