Barack Obama, Media, President Obama — March 20, 2015 at 7:07 am

No, Washington Post, President Obama didn’t “suggest requiring everyone to vote”


Ya gotta admit, it’s terrific clickbait, though, right?

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran a piece titled “Obama suggests requiring everyone to vote”. It was total clickbait that went nuts on Facebook. Other media outlets followed suit but it was the WashPo piece that went viral. And it’s pretty provocative, right? I mean, what sort of dictator would take away your hard-earned patriotic right to not vote? We didn’t send men and women to war for that! Here in the greatest nation on earth we have the liberty and freedom to not exercise our franchise and no dictator is going to take that away from us.

I’ll bet they got some serious traffic from that headline. Unfortunately, it’s a complete misrepresentation of what President Obama actually said. He was, in fact, responding to a reporter’s question about limiting the amount of money spent in our elections and the corrosive, non-democratic efforts by those on the right who are trying to suppress voter turnout. Here is what he actually said, taken directly from the official White House transcript of the President’s remarks:

REPORTER: Hi, Mr. President. You speak about the dysfunction in Washington, partly because people are trying to be reelected every so often. What about Citizens United, and overturning that, and getting some limits on campaign spending so that we bring some reality back to this situation?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, there’s no doubt that among advanced democracies, we are unique in the length of our campaigns, the almost unlimited amounts of money that are now spent. And I think it’s bad for our democracy. (Applause.)

And I speak as somebody who has raised a lot of money. I’m very good at it. I’m proud of the fact that part of the reason I was really good at it is because we were the first sort of out of the gate to — not the first, but we really refined using the Internet for small donations, and to be able to pool a lot of ordinary folk’s resources to amplify our message. But I also got checks from wealthy people, too. So it’s not that I’m not good at it. I just don’t think it’s a good way for our democracy to work.

I think, first of all, it makes life miserable on members of Congress, particularly those in competitive districts. There is no doubt that it has an impact on how legislation moves forward, or doesn’t move forward in Congress. It’s not straightforward, I’m writing the check and here’s my position. But there’s a reason why special interests and lobbyists have undue influence in Washington, and a lot of it has to do with the fundraising that they do. And the degree to which it’s spent on TV and the nature of just the blitzkrieg — you guys here in Ohio, you just feel it, right? It’s just — every election season, you just got to turn off the TV. It’s depressing. And it’s all negative because we know — the science has shown that people are more prone to believe the negative than the positive. And it just degrades our democracy, generally.

Now, here’s the problem. Citizens United was a Supreme Court ruling based on the First Amendment, so it can’t be overturned by statute. It could be overturned by a new Court, or it could be overturned by constitutional amendment. And those are extraordinarily challenging processes. So I think we have to think about what are other creative ways to reduce the influence of money, given that in the short term we not going to be able to overturn Citizens United.

And I think there are other ways for us to think creatively, and we’ve got to have a better debate about how we make this democracy and encourage participation — how we make our democracy better and encourage more participation.

For example, the process of political gerrymandering I think is damaging the Congress. I don’t think the insiders should draw the lines and decide who their voters are. (Applause.) And Democrats and Republicans do this, and it’s great for incumbents. But it means, over time, that people aren’t competing for the center because they know that if they win a Democratic primary or a Republican primary, they’ve won. So they just — it pushes parties away from compromise in the center.

I think that — now, I don’t think I’ve ever said this publicly, but I’m going to go ahead and say it now. We shouldn’t be making it harder to vote. We should be making it easier to vote. (Applause.)

And what I haven’t said — I’ve said that publicly before. (Laughter.) So my Justice Department is going to be vigorous in terms of trying to enforce voting rights. I gave a speech down in Selma at the 50th anniversary that was incredibly moving for me and my daughters, and the notion that this day and age we would be deliberately trying to restrict the franchise makes no sense. And at the state and local levels, that’s — you can push back against that, and make sure that we’re expanding the franchise, not restricting it.

In Australia, and some other countries, there’s mandatory voting. It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country, because the people who tend not to vote are young; they’re lower income; they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups; and they’re often the folks who are — they’re scratching and climbing to get into the middle class. And they’re working hard, and there’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls. We should want to get them into the polls. So that may end up being a better strategy in the short term.

Long term, I think it would be fun to have a constitutional amendment process about how our financial system works. (Applause.) But, realistically, given the requirements of that process that would be a long-term proposition.

Nowhere in his discussion of mandatory voting does he suggest that we should adopt Australia’s policy (which, by the way, is that you are fined around $20 – about $15.75 in U.S. dollars – for not voting.) He saying (a) it would be “transformative” if everybody voted, (b) if everybody voted, it would change our political map, and (c) the best way in the short term to get money out of politics isn’t to pass laws changing campaign finance rules but to make it easier for people to vote instead of harder. That’s what he meant when he said, “So that may end up being a better strategy in the short term.”

I know that it’s titillating to suggest that our president wants to pass a draconian law compelling everyone to vote but, come on. Barack Obama didn’t fall off the apple cart yesterday. He’s way smarter than that. He knows as well as anyone that a bill like that wouldn’t even make it out of committee much less get passed by the House or Senate. But even the Washington Post isn’t above a provocative headline now and then to drive traffic to their site.

They are a business, after all.