This one isn't perhaps quite as annoying, but you know, when you're cranky, everything hits you that way. William Galston made the case for compulsory voting in the NYT yesterday...I don't have strong feelings about his main argument, one way or another. I think I'm marginally anti-Australia, but I'm open to arguments.
So I have no problem with this main point. I did get pretty annoyed by the kitchen sink arguments he made in support of it, however.
First: Were "turnout rates much higher" in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now? No, not really. The go-to expert on this is Michael McDonald, and he finds that turnout rates among voting-eligibles is basically similar in 2004-2008 as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. And don't forget that the "voting-eligible" group isn't the same: overall turnout rates are brought down by the terrible participation of 18-20 year olds who were ineligible in the past. Turnout rates dipped in the 1970s, but have now basically recovered.
Second, Galston's story about political parties isn't really right. He has political machines dominating in the 1950s and 1960s, but that's not true in most places, although there is certainly a lot of variation around the nation and a fair amount of disagreement about exactly what happened (somewhat relevant recommendations for those who are interested: David Mayhew's Placing Parties, and Alan Ware's Breakdown of Democratic Party Organization, 1940-1980). I don't think we know as a fact (and I hope someone will correct or confirm this in comments if there's more evidence that I'm not aware of), but I'm fairly confident that there was a lot more person-to-person mobilization in 2004 and 2008 than in, say, 1956.
Third: polarization. Really? I really don't think there's any relationship at all between voting turnout, at least not general election turnout, and polarization. Whatever you think of partisan polarization, I just can't see that it's changed at all by getting everyone to vote. Now, if we had mandatory voting, including by weak partisans and true independents, in primary elections, yes, that could change things. But Galston quite sensibly isn't advocating that, and so mandatory voting in general elections just isn't likely to affect polarization.
Oh, also: negative ads don't drive down turnout.
Again: none of this really pushes me one way or another on the question of whether the US should go with the Australian approach. But I'd really rather that NYT pieces get the basics right, whatever the arguments they're making.