Colorado Town Debates Mandatory Voting Law

A Ridgway, Colo., pub owner is trying to make voting mandatory.

April 27, 2010— -- 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.

Colorado Bar Owner Pushing to Make it Illegal Not to Vote

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.

"I had to think about the implications for the town, was it really feasible to do this?" Willits said.

The town attorney warned Willits that the town was sure to have a legal battle on its hands.

"Does the town want to put up the cost of defending themselves?" Willits said.

Ridgway has a working yearly budget of about $1 million, Willits said, and although he acknowledged the typically low voter turnout for local and national elections, the town could ill afford a legal battle.

"For the last six weeks, there's been some interesting discussion about all of this," Willits said. "We need to do something in this country, it's something interesting to think about on a national level but I don't think it's Ridgway's flag to carry."

As the debate heated up in the past few weeks, resident Eric Sanford wrote a letter to the Ridgway Sun, saying, he would "enjoy the privilege of being the first to file a lawsuit against the Town of Ridgway and individual members of the Town Council."

Willits said general voter apathy would likely seem "abhorrent" to the Founding Father's but perhaps that's the way it should be.

"I worry about Americans taking the time to be informed before they vote, maybe we should be a country where 40 or 50 percent vote, maybe that's just the way it is," he said.

Willits also worried about the constitutionality of the mandate. "I started talking to folks, and they all said it was interesting, but is it constitutional?" Willits said.

David Hudson, a First Ammendment scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., said the proposal went too far.

"To me, this sounds like a form of thought control and the First Amendment protects, indeed safeguards, freedom of thought," Hudson said.

Hudson said even if there were a section for people to mark "none of the above," it still would be an example of governmental overreaching.

"Not every person who chooses not to vote is lazy," Hudson said. "While Justice Louis Brandeis may have been correct years ago when he wrote 'the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people,' the government should not overstep its bounds and actually force people to vote.

"Just as the First Amendment protects our right to speak and not to speak, we should have the right to vote and not to vote."

Willits said there are other hot-button issues in Ridgway, a town of mostly dirt roads 35 miles from its economic furnace, the Telluride Ski Mountain, with one foot in the Old West and one foot in progressive growth. Aside from mandatory voting, he said, there's heated debate about a resident's keeping an illegal rooster.

"I don't think it's a possibility for Ridgway," he said of imposing mandatory voting.

Hennessy is hopeful, however, despite missing his change for the April elections. He's aiming for the November ballot.

"If you can't bother to vote, how could you ever defend this country?" he asked. "I don't see anything bad that could come of this, only good things."

For now, Hennessy has been invited to share his idea with the Ouray County Commissioners but will have to continue the debate mostly from behind the bar at his pub.

If the initiative ever makes the ballot, Hennessey said he'd have no problem if residents voted it down, or if the turnout for the vote was low.

"I guess that would prove my point," he said.