Compulsory Voting in the United States?

Danielle Messler, Political Science '13 January 3, 2013 Domestic 3

Image from George Mason University

In the 2012 presidential election, only 56.8% of the eligible voting population chose to cast a ballot. Despite an eight million eligible population increase, five millions less ballots were cast than four years ago. The numbers for non-presidential election years are even lower, with only 37.8% of the eligible population having participated in the 2010 congressional elections (Koyzis). This trend is nothing new; voter turnout in the United States is historically between forty-five and sixty-five percent, a much lower rate than most other developed democracies.

The attempt to delineate why so many Americans fail to show up to the polls has yielded a variety of explanations. Some argue that the combination of registration and voting procedures is too complicated and lengthy a process.  The process varies by state, and deadlines range from in person registration a minimum of seven days before the election (Connecticut) to being postmarked by the fifth Monday before the election (Georgia). Approximately ten states and the District of Columbia currently allow same day registration (SDR) with an increasing number of states proposing similar legislation, whereas North Dakota is does not require voter registration at all (same day voter).

Programs that make the registration process less complicated are seen as a way to increase voter participation. A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice suggests that this notion holds true. The report concludes that states with an SDR option see a higher turnout on election day than states that do not. Unsurprisingly, the top five states in terms of voter turnout all have SDR.

There are, of course, other suggestions for increasing participation, which include declaring Election Day to be a federal holiday, holding voting days on weekends, or increased access to early voting. Perhaps the most encompassing proposal is one that would require all eligible citizens to vote.

Compulsory voting exists in approximately thirty-one countries around the world, including many large democracies. Perhaps the most well known is Australia, which has required attendance at elections since 1924. Although voting itself is not required, all eligible citizens are obliged at minimum to check their name off at the election venue. Failure to do so results in fines ranging from AU$20-$AU50, and those who do not pay may face imprisonment. The Australian government does allow those that are sick or can provide a valid reason for nonattendance to defend themselves against paying the penalties.

The longest standing compulsory system comes from Belgium, where the practice has been enforced since 1892 for men and 1949 for women. The Belgian system is more severe than that of Australia. Four consecutive instances of nonparticipation may result in a ban from voting for the next ten years and difficulties securing employment in the public sector.

Many other countries use less formal sanctions that are intended to encourage voting participation. “Innocuous sanctions” in Italy result in non-voters names being posted at town halls, sometimes making it difficult to find childcare and receive public benefits. In Greece, those without paperwork proving they had voted may have trouble obtaining passports or driver’s licenses. The intent of these policies is to foster a sense of societal obligation towards voting and to increase participation.

Despite the reverence most Americans have for our democratic system, in a 2000 study conducted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), the United States ranked 138th out of 172 countries in eligible voter participation. Our rhetoric is statistically at odds with our actions. With inevitably low turnouts looming, almost every election year sees a revival of whether or not the United States should consider compulsory voting.
The arguments for such a system are especially compelling in a time of extreme partisanship and little cooperation. William Galston of the Brookings Institution suggests that our low turnout rate contributes to extreme polarization. He reasons that “hard-core partisans are more likely to dominate lower-turnout elections, while those who are less fervent about specific issues and less attached to political organizations tend not to participate at levels proportional to their share of the electorate,” in a recent article published in the New York Times. More moderate leaning non-voters could temper the recent rise in political extremism by electing those with a stance that is more towards the middle of the spectrum. Proponents of creating a compulsory voting system also cite that it will make our government more democratic by truly representing the majority of citizens and could also reinforce the Kennedy-era ideology of duty to our country.

The proposal is not without critics, as many say that this would go against the deeply rooted sentiment of freedom held by most Americans. Furthermore, other political scientists argue that even if voting were mandatory, it would not change public policy outcomes as much as advocates suggest. Researchers at George Washington University studying the Gore-Bush election found that non-voters were mostly democratic learning, suggesting that compulsory voting would have called the election for Al Gore, but note that a complete policy shift to the left would not have been likely.

Simply put, if jury duty is required, then voting should be too. Jury duty is required to preserve the integrity of our judicial system, and perhaps voting should be required to uphold our legislative and executive branches as well.

Danielle Messler
Political Science ’13

“FACTBOX: Key facts about Belgium’s electoral system.” . Reuters, 10 2007. Web. 18 Dec 2012. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/06/10/us-belgium-election-system-idUSL1024618320070610>.

Friedman, Howard S.. “American voter turnout lower than other wealthy countries.”  The Huffington Post. Web. 18 Dec 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/howard-steven-friedman/voter-turnout-europe-america_b_1660271.html>.

Galston, William. “Telling Americans to Vote, or Else.”The Sunday Review. The New York Times, 05 2011. Web. 18 Dec 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/opinion/sunday/telling-americans-to-vote-or-else.html?adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1349802010-en4esPgpkCIQwWWNzgd74Q&_r=0>.

Gerber, Alan, Donald Green, and Christopher Larimer. “Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large- scale Field Experiment.” American Political Science Review, n.d. Web. 18 Dec 2012. <http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/apsrfeb08gerberetal.pdf>.

“Glossary of Election Terms.” . ABC Elections. Web. 18 Dec 2012. <http://www.abc.net.au/elections/federal/2010/guide/glossary.htm>.

Koyzis, David. “Voter Turnout and Competitive Politics.” Public Justice Report. The Center for Public Justice. Web. 18 Dec 2012.

Lui, Eric. “Should Voting Be Mandatory?.” Time Ideas. Time Magazine, 21 2012. Web. 18 Dec 2012. <http://ideas.time.com/2012/08/21/should-voting-be-mandatory/>

Orsag, Peter. “Make Voting Mandatory.” Bloomberg View. Bloomberg, 19 2012. Web. 18 Dec 2012. <Make Voting Mandatory>.

Russell, Eric. “Same-day voter registration increases turnout, studies say.” BDN Politics. Bangor Daily News, 03 2011. Web. 18 Dec 2012. <http://bangordailynews.com/2011/10/03/politics/new-reports-support-same-day-voting-advocates-say/>.

Same day voter registration. National Conference of State Legislatures, 24 2012. Web. 18 Dec 2012. <http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/same-day-registration.asp&xgt;.>.

Sides, John, Eric Schlickler, and Jack Citrin. “If Everyone Had Voted, Would Bubba and Dubya Have Won?.” Presidential Studies Quarterly. Web. 18 Dec 2012. <http://home.gwu.edu/~jsides/bubbadubya.pdf>.

Voter Registration Deadlines. Long Distance Voter, 11 November 2012. Web. 18 Dec 2012. <http://www.longdistancevoter.org/voter_registration_deadlines>.

Weiser, Wendy, and Lawrence Norden. “Voting law changes in 2012.” Brennan Center for Justice. Web. 18 Dec 2012.

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3 Comments »

  1. Scott B. January 18, 2013 at 7:54 pm -

    A question you do not address that I feel is important: Why do we want to increase voter turnout? You seem to work from the assumption that ~50% turnout is not just poor, but unacceptably so, and that we need to change it, but I’m not sure I would agree.

    A huge portion of Americans, including many of those who do vote, have no idea what they’re voting on. In presidential elections, sure, most people I would like to think at least know the candidates’ names, but to say most people know their platforms would be a lie, and to say that even they know even the candidates’ names in down-ballot and midterm elections would also be very difficult to prove. So why should we want those votes to be cast if they’re not informed votes?

    I realize that higher turnout gives a government legitimacy and maybe a slightly stronger mandate to govern, but the simple truth is that there are a lot of people I’ve come across in my life who I don’t think should vote. You can force people to vote, but not to pay attention, and I wouldn’t want a law such as the one you are proposing to force uninformed votes to be cast. It will simply lead to extremist and purely rhetorical candidates with good soundbites winning with little attention paid to actual policy proposals and government initiatives.

    So I guess I’d say that we should let the people who want to pay attention vote, and those who don’t want to pay attention don’t have to. Their opinions are often still heard; most of us come across various political interest and activist groups in our daily life, and to those who don’t have the time or motivation to truly consider and decide policy issues can (and often do) donate to/pay those of these groups which hold similar ideals to theirs to essentially pay attention for them, decide on specific proposals and candidates for them, and exert their influence for them in a much more informed and thoughtful way. I realize people dislike special interests, but some (the ones I approve of) do represent real people, and they have the knowledge and the means to formulate valid, well-considered opinions. I’m not saying our current system doesn’t have its flaws, but to me, this system seems to lead to much more serious policy debate than would forcing everyone to vote, even when they don’t know what they’re voting on.

  2. Ryan Webler January 22, 2013 at 3:37 pm -

    The concept of compulsory voting in a democracy is somewhat of an oxymoron; compelling individuals to exercise their right to choose contradicts what many understand to be the central tenet of democracy: the right to choose. Yet, tenets and theories, abstract concepts such as “democracy” are slippery notions that evade comprehension. The empirical consequences and public perception of policy-what can be measured of them at least- are more relevant. In this case however, the tenet that I mentioned above is part of what I describe as “public perception”. If choice is taken from the citizen- and compulsion replaces it- the general “tenet” of democratic choice will be threatened and the citizen will perceive this policy as a threat to a freedom they believed they had. For this reason alone, compulsory voting would I think have a deleterious impact on the American democracy.

    But compulsory voting is bad policy for more reasons than this. Beyond frustrating or alarming citizens who make a rational choice to not involve themselves in presidential elections, compulsory voting ignores the basic political reality that few citizens possess the necessary information to cast an informed vote. Yes, low turnout elections such as primaries are controlled by partisan voters, but these voters are, on average, more interested and informed voters than the average general election voter. Will forcing additional uninformed voters to voice their relative ignorance address the problem of “extreme partisanship” that you posit? Probably not. More likely, it will provide politicians with a new target: the apathetic voter who only votes because he must. Questions as to how to convince this voter to vote rather than be fined will abound. Instead of “partisans”-who are at least relatively politically informed compared to the average voter- disproportionately controlling election outcomes- those who know little and care less will. Is this a better alternative?

    Turnout rates are likely low in the United States compared to other democracies due to wealth inequality and its implications on access to education and other resources, as well as the 26th Amendment which lowered the voting age to 18; this group has become less participatory since the framing of this amendment (and it was not especially active then). Ultimately, I think compelling a large swath of the population by force to vote (around 50%) would instigate anger and fear, and likely compound rather than alleviate partisanship.

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