Compulsory voting: Would it fix what ails us?

Early Voting Starts In Florida

With commemorations of Selma and the taking stock of how far we have come in extending voting rights, a question occurs:

What would American democracy look like if voting were a requirement of citizenship?

First, consider what American democracy looks like without it. In the last presidential contest, 59 percent of the nation’s 222 million eligible voters turned out. In the 2014 midterms, 36 percent of 227 million voted, and turnout was no more than 30 percent in nine states.

Why is turnout so low?

Perhaps citizens deny themselves the opportunity because they think:

  • Politicians are owned by special interests
  • There’s little difference between the two parties
  • Officials are corrupt; the system is rigged
  • Citizens are powerless to effect change
  • About politics not at all and feel no connection to government

Those “reasons” are beliefs, not factual. But some states discourage voting, by law or practice:

  • State legislatures gerrymander state and U.S. House districts to maximize political advantage, in turn depressing turnout (in a district or state dominated by one party, any one vote counts less toward the outcome, no matter one’s vote)
  • Voting is cumbersome – a two-step process of registration, for which the deadline typically is weeks before the election, followed by voting
  • Since 2010 (as I wrote recently), many states have restricted registration and voting with burdensome ID requirements and reduced early-voting periods

How would compulsory voting change these dynamics? No one knows. A counter-factual is difficult to prove. But I have a few thoughts.

First, voters would be less inclined to live out of a belief that their vote doesn’t matter. If voting were required, and one voted, it would be harder to believe that the act is meaningless.

Second, state legislatures would be obliged to reduce barriers to voting. For example, in an electronic era, closing voter registration weeks before an election is anachronistic. Some states already have same-day registration. Election days, which are set by law not by the Constitution, could be moved to a weekend or made a holiday (or shifted to a month not designed to coincide with courthouse market day after harvest season). And the suppression resulting from discriminatory ID requirements would make no sense.

More significantly, compulsory voting might shift the rationale of campaign strategies, which are now built on two goals: identifying and “energizing the base,” and depressing opposition turnout with negative ads and other means. “The other guy is a liar” is not an ad designed to attract support but rather to discourage voters antipathetic to its sponsor.

If your email address has found its way into a political advocacy group – anything from to the NRA – the message is the same: “The sky will fall if you don’t help us stop the latest outrage by the other side. (And send money.)” Fear is a more effective motivator than confidence.

Compulsory voting might steer both sides toward the center, which is presumably where the non-voters, the unmotivated, now live. Would not a candidate trying to appeal to the unenthusiastic aim for the center, assuming that the passionate already vote?

Iwantyou2voteThe money dance

Compulsory voting might dampen the influence of big-money contributors, evident in the magnates commanding Republican presidential hopefuls to genuflect before them in recent weeks, and in President Obama’s appearances at dinners for $35,000 a plate. Most of that money buys ads, whose only purpose is to somehow convince voters to take maybe an hour (except in places like Cleveland and Florida) out of a year to go stand in a line – or not to bother.

Of course, partisans would have to pass that bill mandating voting – and they would look to see what kind of advantage or disadvantage would come with the shift. As the Republican Party has spent so much energy in recent years on restricting voting, one would assume they’ve done the calculus. But there are other scenarios.

It could be argued that compulsory voting would help the GOP in ways not now recognized. The party, in tilting back toward the center, might establish a working majority, as opposed to the oppositional status that demographics and philosophy seem to guarantee it for the foreseeable future (as if the future were foreseeable).

For example, in Virginia, where Republican candidates have lost statewide elections in five of the last six years but thanks to demographics and gerrymandering have a lock on the state legislature, compulsory voting might shift the party from focusing on its base to assembling a working majority that could win U.S. Senate seats and the governors mansion.

Or compulsory voting could lead to reunification of the Democrats’ populist and centrist elements as they seek the 64 percent who didn’t show up last November.

Among the duties of citizenship

Some may argue that compulsory voting is an infringement on liberty – not voting as a protest. But we have other obligations of citizenship we accept: paying taxes, sending our children to school, serving on juries (the pools derived from voter registration roles). After all, our representatives created these legal obligations.

Isn’t the main point that “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”? And that “the nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”? What is our freedom if not consented to, and affirmed, by us – all of us?

Twenty-six countries require their citizens to vote, including most in South America, Mexico, a few in Africa and Europe, Egypt and Turkey. The nation most like America, a largely immigrant nation with a democratic tradition rooted in the English common law, is Australia. It’s had compulsory voting since 1924. Surveys put the law’s approval above 70 percent (responding to surveys is no doubt voluntary). Its effect on election outcomes is debated – again, proving a counterfactual is challenging.

Given the public’s disdain for our government and the polarization among our legislators, we might try something different. Compulsory voting could hardly produce a worse outcome, and it might create something better.

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