If a Ridgway, Colo., brewer and pub owner had his way, he and 1,000 or so town residents would be required to vote, which he envisions as a future model for mandatory voting for all U.S. citizens.
Voting is a civic duty that more and more people have replaced with unproductive potshots at their governments, said Tom Hennessy, 52, who's pushing a stalled effort to force people to the polls. They would be fined if they didn't show up.
"It just seems that people complain about government more and more, but voter participation is down and that seems like a total disconnect," Hennessy said. "I want to see less talk and more action from those who feel as if things have taken a bad turn."
The compulsory voting idea first came to Hennessy in 2006 but picked up steam several weeks ago in the form of a lively debate among patrons at his Colorado Boy Pub and Brewery, including his colleague and the town mayor, Pat Willits. Central to the spirited discussion, Hennessy said, was the need for balance between civic duty and First Amendment rights.
"This is the one thing that trumps everything else," he said of voting.
"We have troops out there fighting for our freedoms, the least we could do is participate. Voting is the reason for our freedoms."
Patriotism aside, Hennessy said, the political climate, including the Tea Party movement's disdain for the federal government, should be an obvious incentive for people to be active voters.
"This is the one thing we do that influences anything, why aren't people participating?" he asked.
Hennessy has pushed for Ridgway to enact a mandatory-voting statute, which would levy a fine on residents who dodge the polls without cause. Hennessy cited Australia's mandatory voting rules, which, he said, assess a fine of $15 for avoiding the polls without a good reason.
Hennessey said the voter turnout in Ridgway is historically low, something he'd like to see changed not only to improve the town elections, but to bring a little more clout to the western town on a national voting front.
"Our mayor, who just won an election, got only 170 votes," Hennessy said. "That means over 500 people didn't vote for him."
Hennessy said he wants to see Ridgway lead a national discussion on the issue.
"We could have a mail-in ballot with postage already paid. The cost of that is nothing compared to the money we blow on this government," he said of a national voting mandate.
There could even be a spot marked on the ballot for people to choose "not to participate" or "none of the candidates" to encourage even minimal participation, he said.
"I don't see anything in the Constitution that says we can't ask people to vote, we already ask people to do so many things," he said.
Hennessy said he usually gets a fairly positive reaction from people when he first brings up the idea, but the naysayers tend to have the same reasoning.
"It's the American spirit, people tell me it feels wrong in their gut to have someone tell them they have to vote," he said.
He had brought the issue to the town council and it was scheduled to be on the ballot for this month's municipal elections. But the mayor had second thoughts and removed it Monday. Willits said he liked the idea of including the statute on the ballot initially but then considered what a potential powder keg of controversy such a move would create.