election

Early morning traffic passes by signs for local politicians outside a polling place on Election Day on Nov. 4 in Austin.

Associated Press— Tamir Kalifa

Australians can teach us a lot of things, but its unique system of voting shouldn’t be among them. President Obama is right to lament the sorry state of voting in America today, but his suggestion last week that our nation consider mandatory voting as Australia does ignores one key difference about us: the Bill of Rights.

Our concept of freedom means that while you have the right to vote, you also have the right to not vote. And given some awful choices we’ve seen on election ballots over the years, who can be entirely blamed for not wanting to vote?

Some folks who, for whatever reason, have not kept up with the issues at stake or the credentials of candidates might be doing us all a favor by not voting. In 2011, a Trib editorial board member talked with a local voter who cast a ballot on Proposition 7, a statewide constitutional amendment to give El Paso County residents the right to vote on whether they wanted to create park districts that could levy taxes. Except he didn’t understand what he was voting on. He told us he didn’t favor Proposition 7 “because I believe we ought to retain the right to run our own parks in Waco. I don’t want to see El Paso come here and take over our parks.”

Huh? What?

Putting aside mandatory voting, our leaders should nonetheless be exploring ways to encourage more people to vote. The newly released “America Goes to the Polls: A Report on Voter Turnout in the 2014 Midterm Election” by Nonprofit VOTE, says 36.6 percent of Americans voted in 2014, the lowest turnout level for a midterm since World War II. With a 28.9 percent turnout, Texas ranked second to last for turnout, barely edging out Indiana.

Of the 10 states where turnout was tops, seven held Election Day registration and nine of the 10 had competitive statewide races (and, no, our state’s gubernatorial matchup was not deemed competitive).

The report cites three reasons for low turnout:

Declining electoral competition, partially attributable to gerrymandering where office-holders, Democratic or Republican, are often left in “safe” districts. If they can win their primaries by appealing to their bases, their elections are assurred, as in the 17th Congressional District. Only redistricting reform could change that — and only the Supreme Court could compel it.

Low approval ratings for Congress, for which we the voters are to blame for sending lawmakers to Washington to “fight” rather than work to find common ground and actually solve our problems. As long as our lawmakers feel the key to their success is voting for bills they know will never pass but that keep lapdogs back home happy, voters will wonder, “Why even bother?”

New voting restrictions, which lawmakers should scrutinize to ensure these don’t veer into voter suppression. Unfortunately, too many of our elected officials are more interested in leaving the system as is — rigged to their benefit, voters and democracy be damned.

Add all this up and it makes you glad you don’t actually have to vote.