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Debating Taboos

The first nationally televised debate (C-SPAN) on the subject of mandatory voting, or voting duty, occurred in Washington D.C. on June 27, 2011 (watch it at: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/DebateonMa). Why did it take so long? Because discussing this topic has been a taboo in electoral, legislative and main media arenas.

Taboos afflict all know cultures, anthropologists tell us. And our country certainly has its share. History teaches that when verbal taboos are broken, free discussion and changes for the better occur.

Remember when publically discussing tobacco smoking and cancer was a taboo? The cigarette industry was just too powerful with its advertising and political influence. Then a handful of physician, lawyers and health advocates broke that taboo. Health information by U.S. Surgeon Generals, warning labels, the ban on TV tobacco ads, effective law suits and limited regulations followed. Smoking dropped from about 46% of adults in 1965 to just under 20% today.

The media had a taboo on reporting unsafe automobile designs and the absence of proven safety features. Even criticizing a defective automobile by model name was taboo. For lawmakers and the media "mum was the word," or else you would anger the powerful auto companies and their dealers. Then in the Sixties the taboo was broken, motorists learned that auto makers were suppressing the installation of many simple life-saving devices like seat belts and other crashworthy features.

Congressional hearings revealed that car companies were not recalling known, defective vehicles for correction. Public outrage led to the passage of two auto and highway safety laws in 1966. Irregularly enforced, they have saved millions of lives and injuries, and the saved hundreds of billions of dollars.

Make your own list of public taboos. For example, in all the talk about debts, deficits and taxes, notice the near total silence about a huge revenue producer, with a ready base of popular support, a Wall Street securities transaction tax--often called a tax on high volume financial speculation. In President Obama's 70 minute news conference last week, not one reporter asked his position on this proposed tax. Moreover, no President has been asked this question in public for at least the last 40 years. Yet several countries have such a tax and the U.S. had such a tax until about fifty years ago.

The first nationally televised debate on the Wall Street sales tax--a fraction of one percent and far less than retail stores sales taxes--will be held on July 8, 2011 (see debatingtaboos.org).

The mandatory voting debate featured widely quoted scholar-advocate Norman Ornstein in the affirmative and noted libertarian Fred Smith in the negative. Voting as a legal duty, on the order of jury duty, but much less time-consuming, turns out to be a remarkable multi-faceted subject. Some 32 foreign countries have such a law but fewer than 10 of them--notably Australia, Belgium, Argentina mildly enforce them.

Certainly the turnout is much higher in these countries--96 percent in Australia--than in our elections which range from a high of 60 percent in some presidential elections to as low as 8% in some statewide primaries.

Opposition to mandatory voting is based on an aversion to government coercion, notwithstanding very mild sanctions such as a $15 fine or requiring a written excuse to avoid the fine. Opponents also say, required voting cheapens the vote, leads to random voting or other forms of passive resistance and produce more voters with little or no knowledge about the candidates.

Proponents argue that having three options--voting for the candidates on the ballots, choosing to write-in someone or voting for "none-of-the-above" takes care of the issue of coercion. They also say that having to obey thousands of laws and regulation should entail voting for or against the lawmakers responsible for these many mandatory laws. In addition, the goal of being elected by a majority of the eligible voters, instead of getting into office with as low as 20 or 10 percent of the eligible voters legitimizes the principle of democratically elected governments. Finally, they say required voting saves large amounts of get-out-the-vote money.

Walking out of the auditorium, the people in attendance for the Ornstein/Smith debate exclaimed that it was the first time they thought about voting as a legal duty. College students averred that they'd never even had a "bull-session" on the subject.

Never confronting this duty, its benefits and consequences probably explains why when a poll asked people their opinion, about 70 percent opposed. But even Fred Smith observed that cranking in a none-of-the-above option somewhat diminished his opposition. (For a copy of our report on this subject, visit: http://www.csrl.org/nota/)

So here's to breaking more public taboos and opening windows, and letting sunlight and fresh breezes and important ideas waft through them--whether it is the repeal of the Taft-Hartley anti-labor law, charging mining corporations for taking the public's hard rock minerals and using the public airwaves, the military budget, prosecuting Bush/Cheney, U.S. wars of aggression, closing nuclear power plants, ending the individual income tax, legalizing industrial hemp, or changing drug policy, prison policies and more.

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