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The Case for Compulsory Voting

The right to vote is under relentless assault in the United States today. In 2013, the Supreme Court nullified a pivotal provision of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, which required states to secure approval from the government before changing their election laws. The consequences of the ruling were swift. North Carolina immediately proposed a voter suppression bill that eliminated same-day voter registration. In 2016, 14 states implemented new voting restrictions for the first time in a presidential election. Five years since the ruling, the number of polling closures has doubled.

During a town hall event in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2015, Barack Obama commented on America’s disappointing culture of voter suppression: “We shouldn’t be making it harder to vote, we should be making it easier to vote.” He also considered the radical potential of a mandatory voting law. “It would be transformative if everybody voted—that would counteract money [in politics] more than anything.”

The former president’s comments were immediately met with heavy conservative criticism. “Forcing people to vote violates their freedom of speech, because freedom to speak includes the right not to speak,” wrote Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank. “Why should the rest of us have to suffer the possible consequences of [voter] ignorance?” wrote Trevor Burrus of the Cato Institute. “Just let the dart throwers stay home.”

For decades, conservatives and libertarians have colonized the political space of liberty, arguing that any compulsion by law—whether relinquishing one’s assault weapons or being moderated on speech platforms—is both morally and constitutionally indefensible from the perspective of freedom. Meanwhile, civil rights advocates have largely conceded this territory, clinging to the hard-won legal battles of the Civil Rights Movement, rather than producing new and compelling political arguments in favor of meaningful electoral reform. Now, as the conservative majority in the Supreme Court threatens to chip away at the last substantive provision of the Voting Rights Act, they cannot afford to be complacent any longer. Civil rights advocates must usher in a new vision of political freedom: one that combines the value of full participation with the equal protection of the law.

A compulsory voting law—practiced in a number of democracies around the world, including Australia and Belgium—makes voting a civic requirement for all citizens. It would incentivize state and local legislatures to lower, not raise, the procedural hurdles to full participation for every citizen over the age of 18, no matter their race or class. This new American democracy would finally represent all the people, rather than the most radical, the wealthiest, and the most well-connected.

Practically, such a reform would also curb the culture of voter suppression that has historically barred less powerful groups from the political system. In the US, citizens with lower levels of income and education are less likely to vote. This story is often perceived as one of individual choice: non-voters are simply uninterested in the vote as an instrument of political influence. In reality, there are a host of formal and informal disenfranchisement mechanisms that bar citizens from associating the vote with an instrument of political influence at all. Apart from formal constraints on voting—such as voter ID laws—many citizens do not vote because they do not perceive the government as responsive to their needs even if they did vote. Public officials reinforce this perception by prioritizing the concerns of likely voters over non-voters. Political scientists Martin Gilens and Ben Page have demonstrated that the government is highly responsive to the attitudes of economic elites, but less so to the views of average voters. In addition to real or perceived government unresponsiveness, communities without strong norms of voting also face a problem of collective action. By creating the expectation that everyone will vote, compulsory voting remedies the collective action problem that plagues disadvantaged communities. A near-universal turnout would then reorient the political system to be responsive to the most vulnerable groups in society—it would, in the most meaningful sense, secure the “equal protection of the laws” under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Compulsory voting is not a novel idea. In Australia, it has existed since 1924, after voter turnout fell to 60 per cent. The law also established permissible reasons for not voting, such as illness and foreign travel, and procedures allowing citizens facing fines to challenge them in court. The year after the new law, voter turnout skyrocketed to 91 per cent. In subsequent years, voter turnout in Australia has averaged 95 per cent. The Australia case provides an example of how a compulsory voting law might affect voter turnout. It also suggests how laws can transform a political culture for the better. In a 1996 survey, for example, 87 per cent of Australians (significantly higher than in 1924) said they would “probably” or “definitely” still vote even if it wasn’t mandatory. This suggests that a significant portion of Australian voters found genuine reasons to vote thanks to a new culture of voting made possible by the law.

The political culture of the United States is desperately in need of change. Voter turnout in the 2016 elections was a meager 55 per cent and turnout hasn’t climbed above 60 per cent since 1968. When citizens have an obligation to vote, state and local legislatures have an obligation to make voting as easy as possible. The erosion of the Voting Rights Act under the Supreme Court has allowed states to impose new requirements on voters, reinforcing a culture of indifference. Making voting a civic duty would change the presumptions in favor of broad access to voting, encouraging many states to reverse a decades long trend.

American politics has also never been more divisive. A Pew Research Study found that the overall share of Americans who express ideological views has doubled over the past two decades. The state of polarization in the United States has increasingly incentivized politicians to choose party over country—most notably today through gerrymandering and soliciting interference from foreign countries. By affecting the fairness of our elections, these actions threaten the health of our democracy. “If one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history,” write political scientists Steven Levittsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die, “it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.”

There is ample evidence that compulsory voting could reverse the polarization trend. In a 2017 poll, approximately six out of 10 Americans believe that both the Democratic and Republican parties are out of touch with the concerns of most people. According to political scientist Morris Fiorina, this is because most of the current non-voting electorate in the US is more moderate than present-day voters. Compulsory voting could add more than a quarter of the American population to the voting electorate, permanently depolarizing American politics.

The main objection to compulsory voting is that it is in violation of our individual liberty. Although this is never decisive (taxation is also a kind of compulsory policy), the principle places a heavy burden of justification on the proponents of compulsory laws. Yet compulsory voting may be more conducive to individual liberty. Because elections in a democracy are the means by which laws are passed, electoral arrangements have deep and pervasive consequences on the freedoms granted to different groups. In the case of something as fundamental as electoral reform, coercion of a vote must be balanced with the potential freedoms enjoyed by different individuals and groups from a newly responsive government. This means that a society with more government coercion on its face may very well respect individual liberty more than a minimalist government. If the burden of proof should be on those who want to curtail individual liberty, then it falls on both sides in this debate, not just on the proponents of compulsory voting.

Another objection to compulsory voting is the concern, ancient in origin, that it cedes too much power to the uneducated. Plato was skeptical of the ‘demos’ precisely for this reason. In any large society, there will inevitably be those who tune out from politics altogether. Forcing those individuals to vote, one might say, threatens the long-standing faith in the “wisdom of the multitude.”

But even if citizens are currently not informed enough to make intelligent voting decisions, there are still reasons to encourage universal voting. According to Thomas Jefferson, “If we think [voters] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.” There is evidence that compulsory voting could spur the education of the public. The Australian case suggests that the law can bring out a genuine desire to participate in politics, suggesting that it could also encourage new voters to get informed. Mandatory voting could also incentivize the media to produce a more rich, moderate, and informative media environment, one that could improve voter expertise in the long term.

By flooding Washington with the will of all voters, compulsory voting can bring the parties closer in line with the majority of the American electorate, check the corruption of Congress by special interests, restore legitimacy to democratic institutions, and curb the vicious cycle of political disengagement in under-represented communities. The state of America’s deep political tribalism and culture of voter suppression calls for bold, actionable political reform. Compulsory voting is a well-timed and well-researched solution to our current political crisis.

 

Chang Che is a masters student in political theory at Oxford. You can read more from him on his website and you can follow him on Twitter @changxche. Josh Krook contributed research to this article.

Comments

  1. “It would be transformative if everybody voted—that would counteract money [in politics] more than anything.”

    No it wouldn’t: money could influence more people.

  2. The lying myth of voter suppression…

  3. That’s utterly non-logical. That’s like saying that having more people around to get infected by the influenza virus dilutes the virus’ effect on people.

    Try again.

  4. It’s a compelling argument and certainly in line with any rational persons view of natural justice- but, unfortunately, an idealist’s viewpoint. In these polarised times, when each side sees the other as an existential threat, “By Any Means Necessary” seems to be the order of the day for the foreseeable future. And, of course, the Democrats are not immune from this tendency, with their increasingly rapid and unreasonable desires to see the filibuster and the electoral college abolished- when they know that the American Constitutional System was intentionally set up, so that changes could only be enacted when an overwhelming majority of the population both accepted a specific change, and fully understood the realistic mechanisms of how to pay for it.

    “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch . Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote .”

    Obviously, most Americans are familiar with this Ben Franklin quote. But fewer, understand the reason why the Founding Fathers were concerned over this issue. Perhaps it was a function of their far more brutal, impoverished and dignity-destroying times, but they implicitly understood that robbing the rich man to give the poor man a temporary reprieve, would only end up making the poor man poorer, in the long run.

    Don’t get me wrong. As a Radical Centrist, I believe that there does need to be some tilt applied to the scales, to ensure that everyone has enough to exist with a basic standard of living. The Republican belief that everyone can be independent and self-reliant is deeply mistaken. At least 10 to 15% of any population is simply incapable of being fully self-sufficient. It’s why India and China have vast storehouses of Government owned Rice, just in case a couple of bad seasons globally, threaten the ability of the most vulnerable, to claim their rice-dole. And for the record, America has 4.7% of it’s working age population registered for disability, and for roughly 10%, it would be illegal to induct them into the Army, because of IQ’s that fall below a certain level.

    But we only need to look to history to see that, whilst it may be perfectly possible to institute Social Democracy, with larger social safety nets, these are mainly paid for by taxes on the poor and middle-classes, Democratic Socialism has always either resulted in the complete collapse of a country, or the scaling back of unrealistically optimistic public spending commitments. Socialism in general, was responsible for more deaths than the Second World War in the Twentieth Century- and only the Spanish Flu beat it to the top, for total body counts. China, may well be Communist in some ways ideologically, but their Government could better be described as a Meritocratic Autocracy in functional terms, heavily reliant on the market to create their newfound wealth, and is incredibly decentralised in terms of spending.

    Meanwhile the Scandinavian countries that Bernie Sanders so admires, with his Democratic Socialist aims, are actually Free Market economies with larger social safety nets. If you don’t believe me watch this speech from a Danish Prime Minister at Harvard:

    The Nordic Model economies rely on less regulated economies, and higher taxes on people to pay for their Welfare States. They have lower taxes on Corporations and no inheritance taxes. They all score very high on the Index of Economic Liberty- with the only real difference being stronger worker protections. Although, they have high percentages of workers in the public sector, sometimes around 30%, this is changing- as they have realised that current levels of spending are unsustainable, given the rising cost of a more elderly population- and are all in the process of pushing more publicly commissioned services out to tender, in the private sector.

    You see the dream that Progressives articulate, is only a half-planned ambition. In order to fully realise it their would need to be a complete and revolutionary audit of all Government regulation, employment and services with a view to reducing total government spending. This may well be why Andrew Yang scores highest amongst independents, swing voters and Republicans- with 18% of College Republicans willing to vote for him over Donald Trump. They might realise that paying for his Freedom Dividend might require significant Government cut-backs and a leaner, less regulatory economy. It also might be why MSNBC is so hostile to both him, and Tulsi Gabbard- because they realise that many of their friends in the political and Government machines might suddenly find themselves out of work…

  5. If all voters in the United States were required to take the same test new citizens take, I would be more amenable to compulsory voting, but I want voters to have more than a pulse. Low voter turnouts are not a bad thing – if I do not have a clue what the issues are, why should I vote. Low information voters herded to the polls is a terrible idea. Frankly, the right to vote should be earned though some positive action such as national service or the military. Difficult issues such as health care, immigration, and taxation should require people to articulate their plans, submit them to the public, and let people who try to understand the problem vote on the person they think can best implement their ideas. Compulsory voting – that is something Stalin wanted!

  6. “You can bring a horse to water…”
    Mandatory voting in Australia just means mandatory attendance at the voting booth. Valid votes aren’t necessarily cast of which approximately 5% were ‘invalid’/informal votes at the 2016 election. Citizens who don’t enrol to vote or attend on voting day without an acceptable ‘excuse’ are fined. Policing enrolments & fines of the entire country isn’t ‘free’ & the mind boggles just how you could justify this costly expenditure especially in the US.
    Perhaps the prevention of voter apathy starts with just & productive prioritisation of resources rather than expensive grabs at easy potential political targets.

  7. “In 2013, the Supreme Court nullified a pivotal provision of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder , which required states to secure approval from the government before changing their election laws.” - There isn’t a word of truth in that statement. The Supreme Court did no such thing. The author is either lying or ignorant.

    What the Supreme Court did do, was to toss out the existing geographic formula that required some states (I think 12) to get prior approval while the rest did not. The Supreme Court did not even hold that the geographic formulas are inherently unconstitutional. It simply held that the original VRA formula was unconstitutional and asked Congress to come up with a new one. Congress has not chosen to do so.

    Not a single Voting Right was in anyway diminished by the 2013 Supreme Court decision. All of the Voting Rights guaranteed by the VRA remain entirely intact. All the Supreme Court decision did was to hold that the existing (old) geographic formula was no longer valid and enforceable.

  8. Wow.

    Did Stacey Abrams write this?

    Any “restrictions” being proposed result in a system that is still far more lax in protecting the integrity of the vote than virtually any other developed country’s system.

  9. I simply don’t understand the argument against voter ID. It’s in everyone’s interest (unless you are a traitor) to ensure that only citizens vote in an election.

    Hmmm. Maybe that explains it.

  10. As a French citizen I really don’t understand what all the fuss about voter ID law is about.

    In France you can register to vote until a few weeks before voting day, and you have to show your ID for your vote to be registered, at the polling place. The polling official will check that you are properly registered to vote in this polling place, on a list (“liste électorale”).

    Once you are registered on the liste électorale, you do not need to register for the next election, unless you changed your address.

    If you are on a vacation in another city in France, there is a procedure which allows you to go to another polling place that the one you were assigned.

    When you change your polling place, you are automatically unregistered from your previous one, ensuring that no one can vote twice or more.

    Really, I don’t get why every other country does not do the same…

  11. Yes, the concomitant responsibilities which come with rights is the duty to not violate others’ same rights.

    My right to life carries the concomitant responsibility of me not violating others’ same right: me taking care to not kill any other person, either intentionally or accidentally.

    My right to liberty carries the concomitant responsibility of me not violating others’ same right: me not locking others into rooms – or cages.

    My right to property carries the concomitant responsibility of me not violating others’ same right: acquiring title to others’ property only through voluntary (peaceful) exchange.

  12. First compel people to vote, then tell them how to vote. This article is nothing but one long temper tantrum over the fact the writer’s candidate did not win in 2016. The writer’s candidate did not win because she was uninspiring and voters stayed home. There was no great injustice that cost Hillary the election. Voter suppression is not rampant in the U.S. She was and always has been a poor candidate. If Hillary had replicated Barack Obama’s numbers she would be President. If coercing citizens to vote is a good idea, what else should the government be coercing citizens to do?

  13. The reason why most people don’t vote isn’t because of voter suppression, thoughts that “my vote doesn’t count”or frustration with the system. It’s because those that don’t vote believe they have something better or more desirable to do on Election Day then going to the polls. Working, watching sports, sleeping in, all are considered preferable to going to the polls, not to say studying the issues and candidates. So forcing them to go ro the polls will take them away from what they want to be doing. Sort of like ordering someone to be enthusiastic and happy; doesn’t work.

  14. Americans are weird with this idea you shouldn’t have to show ID to vote. You have to show ID to buy a bottle of wine, how is your identity less important when you’re voting? The only possible reason to make such a case (and to go as far as crying “racism” when people disagree) is because you intend to cheat. It’s so transparent, I don’t understand how Democrats can even bring themselves to make this case in public.

    Even if you didn’t plan on cheating yourself, you should expect other people will. In fact, I saw someone do just that a few years ago for a federal election in Canada. The guy ahead of me in line could not produce ID or proof of address, and couldn’t even give his address (he literally stuttered and claimed to live “around the corner”). He was allowed to vote, I think because this was an NDP stronghold (the only riding in Western Canada to resist the Blue wave) and he was part of a visible Victim group. If it’s so easy in Canada to vote fraudulently, I can only imagine the shenanigans that happen in the US.

    As for compulsory voting, this sentence astounded me:

    Freedom is slavery, anyone?

    The left must think their hegemony in media and education means that low-information voters should choose them by default, out of a fear of being called every -ism and -phobia in the book. I wouldn’t be too sure about that, but I’m not keen to find out. It is simply inappropriate for government to tell people what they must do with their day. That some people think they can modify what people want to do with their day is a gross misuse of government and betrays authoritarian tendencies.

  15. Let me respectfully disagree here that mandatory voting is a bad idea despite the article having been a tour de force of ingenuous, partisan arguments. But first, yes, I agree there’s nothing wrong with needing ID to vote and also that

    “The left must think their hegemony in media and education means that low-information voters should choose them by default, out of a fear of being called every -ism and -phobia in the book. I wouldn’t be too sure about that…” but I encourage you to in fact be keen to find out because it doesn’t turn out like the author so fervently hopes. Australia’s electoral history (and that of Luxembourg where I am a citizen and thus have the duty to vote) show the typical see-sawing of control of government between Left, Center and Right.

    So why have it, then? Because, as Latun mentioned, the legitimacy it creates is of great value to the body politic, civil society at large and governmental institutions in particular. Gone is the specious but perennial argument used by partisans on all sides, “This government lacks legitimacy because If more people had voted, my side would have won!”

    Supposing this is true we must nonetheless ask, does this come at too great a price? I think not and compare it to the mandatory jury duty typical in many countries. A Grand Jury in convened every 4 years or so in Australia comprising the adult citizens of the country on a paid national holiday designated for that purpose when they render their verdict on the shenanigans of the rascals currently in office. If that jury finds the current lot incompetent, corrupt or just plain unresponsive enough to warrant it, they throw the rascals out and the people have spoken. If your side lost, tough luck; there’s another election before too long and meanwhile let’s get some governing done within the checks and balances which prevent a majority (or a minority) from running rough-shod over everyone else.

    It’s a shame the article was so blatantly partisan and used ‘civic duty’ as a flimsy guise for merely asserting that the author’s preferred party should always be in office and that when they’re not it’s due only to ‘voter suppression’ or some other version of “My side would win if more people voted!” Mandatory voting is in fact a non-partisan issue which I feel devolves more power to the voters that is otherwise vested in the parties themselves rather than their constituents. Democrats should be careful of what they wish for if they think mandatory voting would give them an automatic advantage; many Republican don’t vote in districts where they’re outnumbered and the secrecy of the voting booth produces many more unexpected center-right votes that Left ones.

    Ranked voting also makes mandatory voting much more palatable again erodes the power of the party elites to carve up the spoils of government amongst the smallest number of people as is their wont.

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