Americans are used to hearing about elections that are plagued by low voter-turnout. Many Americans see voting as optional, and in most elections (that do not involve choosing the president) a majority of eligible voters choose to abstain. But what if voting wasn’t a choice, but rather a duty that was legally required of a country’s citizens? This idea isn’t as outlandish as it may initially sound. In fact, there are at least 26 countries that currently employ some form of compulsory voting.
While giving a speech just this past March, President Obama expressed his support for mandatory voting. Seeing compulsory voting as a way to combat the influence of money in politics, he said:
“It would be transformative if everybody voted […] The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily toward immigrant groups and minorities.”
Obama’s concern regarding voter turnout in the U.S. is not unfounded. In the most recent 2014 midterm elections voter turnout rates were at their lowest levels since 1942, with less than 37% of the eligible population making it to the polls. In addition, voter turnout can be as low as 4% when municipalities hold special elections.
President Obama is not the only world leader who has been contemplating the possibility of mandatory voting recently. Canadian Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has seriously argued for compulsory voting, expressing hopes that it might take effect immediately after this Fall’s national election.
Because compulsory voting is a hot topic in the United States, as well as our neighbor up north, it is important to consider some of the pros and cons of such a policy:
Pro: Higher Turnout Elections
Not surprisingly, one of the main arguments which champions of the policy present in favor of compulsory voting is that it leads to drastically higher voter turnout rates. Australia serves as a prime example of such an effect. Prior to Australia’s implementation of compulsory voting in 1924, the voter rate had sunk to around 47% of registered voters. After the adoption of mandatory voting, turnout rates soared, with the current level resting at over 80% of the eligible population (and over 90% of registered voters). This percentage should be considered in comparison to the U.S., in which only 57% of eligible voters turned out in the 2012 presidential election.
Additionally, some proponents of the policy emphasize that under compulsory voting, voting becomes more a duty than a right. The idea is that making voting mandatory alters civics norms, so that eventually it is simply expected that everyone takes part in elections.
As is often highlighted by supporters of the practice, in a democracy where politicians are supposed to represent the interests of all citizens, it is especially important that as much of the population votes as possible. When voter participation rates are low, a small minority often ends up controlling leadership and policy decisions, while lower-income, younger and non-white voters are less often heard by political leaders.
Another benefit advocates cite in support of compulsory voting is that it will help to minimize political polarization in the United States. Lower turnout, it is argued, enables more hard-core partisans and ideologues to dominate elections. Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution, William Galston, believes a fully engaged voting population can counter this problem. “If the full range of voters actually voted,” Eric Liu of TIME explains “our political leaders, who are exquisitely attuned followers, would go where the votes are: away from the extremes.”
Lastly, some people assert that mandatory voting will ultimately help make it easier for people to vote. If a state legally compels its citizenry to vote, the burden shifts from the individual to the state to ensure that everyone has the means to be able to take part in elections. An example of this shift can be seen in Australia’s usage of mobile polling facilities in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and remote Aboriginal communities to ensure that those who are unable to get to a polling location can still vote.
Con: The Rise of the Uninformed Voter
Of course, the range of arguments supporting compulsory voting is matched by a plethora of reasons why the U.S. should keep voting voluntary.
One of the major arguments given by those against compulsory voting is that it leads to a greater number of uninformed voters, noting that those who choose not vote are generally less educated on political issues than those who choose to vote. Critics argue that the resulting surplus of politically ignorant voters has three main negative consequences:
Misleading uninformed voters. It is often asserted that uninformed voters are more susceptible to the influence of money and spending on television ads. A short advertisement is likely to have a greater influence on an uninformed voter than one who already has strong views. This encourages the use of sensational and misleading advertising and may have a negative effect on campaigning techniques. While politicians no longer need to try to convince citizens to go out and vote, they still need to find ways to maximize their vote among less informed voters. Australian political scientist, Haydon Manning notes that compulsory voting often “require[s] banal sloganeering and crass misleading negative advertising.”
Ignoring the wishes of most voters. Since uninformed voters are more easily persuaded, some politicians may choose to focus on marginal voters and ignore their main base of support. Even if compulsory voting leads to less polarization, it may not result in better policy outcomes because complicated and nuanced legislation may be perceived negatively by swing voters.
Dampening the voice of the majority. An additional concern under a compulsory system is that people who are uninformed (or simply do not care about the outcome of an election) may end up voting randomly. The impact of ‘random’ votes ends up being particularly detrimental because it fails to increase civic engagement and may skew election results.
Compulsory voting presents some ethical challenges. Many people argue that it infringes upon individual liberty by denying people the ability to choose not to vote. While it is true that ballots may include a “none of the above” option (though, in practice, typically do not), the act of voting itself may be seen as “endorsing” the current politicians and political system, an endorsement that some citizens may not want to make.
While it seems pretty unlikely right now that compulsory voting will be adopted in the United States, at least on a federal level, it is a policy to keep in mind as America continues striving towards a better democracy.