During the 2012 presidential election less than 56% of eligible Americans cast votes. Two years later the mid-term elections saw only 36% participation by voters. The lack of participation of so many eligible voters has led to a growing movement in the United States to make voting in national, state, and local elections mandatory, a condition which already exists in more than two dozen countries around the world. As with all things political in this day and age, the issue is a divisive one.
In 1893 Belgium enacted compulsory voting for men (1948 for women) and has retained it since, with voters required to present themselves at the polls on election day. They are not required to cast a vote, though most do. Failure to appear renders citizens liable to prosecution and fines, and failure to cast a vote in four consecutive elections is cause for their loss of the right for a period of ten years. Other countries, including the Netherlands, have suspended laws making voting mandatory, and experienced a subsequent drop in voter participation. In the case of the Dutch, the first election following the suspension of mandatory participation saw a drop of 20%. There is strong evidence compulsory voting has strengthened democracy in Australia. Here are 10 things which mandatory voting could lead to in the United States.
10. Protests against the law and voting
For many Americans who do not vote, the abstention is justified as an expression of their freedom. These voters claim the right to vote simultaneously extends the right not to vote, and abstention is an expression of that right. For them, compulsory voting is an overreach of the government, denying their right to express their personal freedom by remaining outside of the electoral process. Being forced to vote is a violation of their rights, just as being forced to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle on a public highway, or currently a facemask when engaging in public transactions, are violations of their freedom.
Inevitably, those who appear to cast ballots solely to avoid civil or criminal penalties will use their votes as a form of protest against the same government which mandated their appearance. Incumbents who supported compulsory voting will find themselves facing a backlash from irate citizens. Others will likely resort to random voting, simply selecting candidates or positions on issues with indifference to their impact. A less informed electorate could participate in the voting process, essentially wasting their opportunity to exercise their right to have their voice heard.
9. Voter registration lists could be cleaned up
Compulsory voting laws in nearly all countries which enforce them are strewn with exemptions for potential voters. Some are based on the voter’s ability to make it to the polls on the appointed day, others on physical disabilities which restrict mobility. Another means of enacting compulsory voting laws but exempting a large portion of the electorate is by making voting mandatory for registered voters. In the absence of a law which makes registering to vote a requirement, those not wishing to participate can exempt themselves simply by failing to register.
As noted, in some countries, including Belgium, the law requires voters to appear at the polls on the appointed day, but does not require them to cast a ballot. Such a law in the United States would clarify the status of the lists of registered voters, which in many states are out-of-date, containing people who have relocated, or died, or otherwise changed their status. Those who do not appear can be contacted by the government to determine their current location and condition, maintaining more accurate voter registration lists and limiting the opportunity for voter fraud.
8. Governments would shift to more centrist policies
Candidates for office would have to contend with the idea of the entire electorate appearing at the polls, rather than a focused base. Candidates, regardless of party affiliation, would contend with a portion of the electorate opposed to their political views. Rather than simply pandering to their base, a broader portion of the people would need to be considered when campaigning for office, and in governing should the campaigning yield success. This is especially true in areas where liberals, moderates, and conservatives are more evenly distributed.
The need to attract the support of a broader spectrum of the electorate would create the need to move to more centrist policies, creating an atmosphere within the government of pursuing compromise, rather than partisan division and stagnation. The far left and the far right would find their influence waning as more moderate approaches to governing gain approval of the voters. Whether compulsory voting would make government more effective is debatable, but the influence of the entire electorate, rather than relatively narrow political bases, would be felt in state legislatures and Congress, shifting priorities from party politics to governing.
7. Enforcement would not need to be draconian to be effective
In Australia, where compulsory voting began in 1924, turnouts run around 90%. Australian law mandates both registration to vote in federal elections (the same form applies to state and local elections) and appearance to vote. The law is enforced, though loosely. Citizens reaching the age of 18 have 8 weeks to comply by registering, or make themselves liable to fines. Registered voters are also required by law to update their status should changes occur, such as a change of address, entry into military service, or living outside of Australia for any reason.
Those who fail to vote are allowed to offer an explanation for their vote’s absence. Some acceptable explanations are illness which prevented the voter from appearing at the polls, and objections based on religious views are routinely accepted. For those explanations deemed illegitimate, fines are issued; $20 for the first time, $50 for subsequent violations. Only about 25% actually pay their fines. In local and state elections the fines are typically much lower. Despite the relatively benign nature of the sanctions for not voting, Australia typically sees less than 10% of the electorate refusing to cast their votes, which ensures the views of a much larger segment of the population are expressed in the polls than in the United States.
6. Mandatory voting would address the gap between the affluent and less affluent voters
According to multiple research studies, more affluent Americans and the wealthy vote at a much higher rate than the poor, younger voters, and those with less education. The reason why so many disaffected voters are among the latter three groups is debated, but there is agreement that compulsory voting would make their voices heard by ensuing governments. Policies geared toward the interests of the middle class and the wealthy would be forced to consider the large block of eligible voters who currently don’t exercise the franchise, typically about 40% in presidential elections.
The power of the absent 40% to alter the outcome of elections would change the way candidates’ campaign, and the nature of the candidates themselves. A broader number of issues would appear before the public during the election season, and in the halls of government. Among them would be the nature and quality of public education, the costs and availability of health care, urban renewal, and many more which are currently seen as obstacles to success to a growing number of Americans.
5. There would be a splurge of lawsuits
Nothing in the Constitution of the United States, nor any of the state constitutions, demands that citizens must participate in the electoral process (though Georgia’s first constitution in 1777 did just that, and remained in effect until 1789). The result of a national law mandating voter participation will undoubtedly lead to lawsuits in every state in the nation, with claims that forcing citizens to vote is a violation of their rights.
How voting is actually accomplished is a matter left to the states under current law. Each state controls the type of ballot to be used, the location of polling sites, the manner in which the ballots are counted and tabulated, the use of mail-in ballots, and all other facets of the voting process. Maintenance of registration rolls is also under the control of the states. In states where a majority of the legislature opposes mandatory voting, simply failing to enact laws establishing penalties for non-compliance with compulsory voting could effectively thwart the process while lawsuits worked their way through already swamped courts.
4. Compulsory voting laws would change the electoral process
Compulsory voting laws enacted at the federal level would force the states to make access to voters easier, rather than more difficult. When all eligible citizens are required to appear at the polls on election day, or otherwise cast their ballots, the states would be forced to make polls more accessible, the process less cumbersome, and the availability of options for the impaired universal. Such options include mail-in ballots and early voting.
The use of compulsory voting would reduce the reliance on so-called “swing states” and the recent focus by candidates to win the Electoral College vote, despite failing to obtain a plurality of the popular vote. Indirect election of the President, conducted through the Electoral College, would be a thing of the past, allowing the populace to directly elect the Chief Executive with a clear view of the will of the people. Such action would make every popular vote equal, rather than the current system of giving more attention to the votes in the more populated swing states.
3. The impact would be significant in local elections
In 2015, a research study in Dallas, Texas, found that just 6.1% of eligible voters participated in the most recent mayoral election. It also found that the average age of voters in the same election was 62. In many other cities across the country, voter participation in municipal elections hovered around 15%, with the majority of voters coming from the more affluent and older demographics. In other words, over 80% of eligible voters eschewed the polls, and the performance of the resulting governments is affected by the disparity.
Obviously, requiring all voters to participate in local elections, which have a more significant impact on the lives of citizens than most believe, would alter the political landscape across the nation. Several studies demonstrate that participation in local elections increases voter interest in midterm and presidential elections, creating a better informed electorate. It also creates a sense of civic responsibility often absent from non-voters, who choose to ignore the democratic process and their role within.
3. It would strengthen American democracy
Since 2006, the Democracy Index has been compiled and published by the Economist Intelligence Unit in the United Kingdom. It ranks 167 countries regarding the state of democracy within, using a variety of criteria in several categories. In 2016 the United States, whose rank had been in decline for several years, slipped from being categorized as a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.” In 2019 it appeared as number 25 from the top of the list, still as a flawed democracy, with numbers showing further decline from 2016 (Norway tops the most recent list).
The causes are many, and have been worsening for years, but chief among them, according to the report, is lack of faith and trust in the government, and lack of participation in the political process. Mandatory voting would directly address both issues, by definition increasing the amount of participation by citizens. But it would also lead to the election of officials by necessity more responsive to the needs of the entire electorate, rather than to party leaders and their own political base.
1. It would lead to the voices of all to be heard in the government
When Australia implemented compulsory voting in 1924 it was in direct response to low voter turnouts in previous elections. The vote immediately changed the nature of the government, with greater input from the working class and others who had been less represented in earlier governments. Despite less than total enforcement of penalties for violating the compulsory voting laws, Australians continue to go to the polls at numbers which as a percentage of total eligible voters’ dwarfs that of the United States. Over the past century, Australians have come to view voting as a civic duty, even when casting blank ballots. In the 2019 Democracy Index, Australia ranked 9th and as a “full democracy,” the United States 25th as a “flawed democracy.”
Too many Americans consider the idea of the federal government forcing them to vote a violation of their liberties and encroachment on their freedom for mandatory voting to occur in the United States in the foreseeable future. Even the most vocal supporters of compulsory voting acknowledge it is unlikely to be accepted in the United States. It doesn’t have to be a law. Americans can take it upon themselves to ensure higher participation in the electoral process, though history and current partisan polarization are indications they aren’t likely to do so.