In the most recent U.S. presidential election, only 57.5 percent of eligible American citizens participated. Nearly half of U.S. voters now abstain from the voluntary voting process.
This consistently low turnout demonstrates that Americans are not adequately moved to participate in elections. With mandatory voting, Americans will participate more fully in the political process and take full advantage of the Constitution’s promise of equal representation. Politicians will have more diverse support and run less targeted campaigns designed to attract voters in a specific subgroup. As more citizens vote, pressure for politicians to represent the beliefs of all voters increases, which can help determine the most dedicated candidate. The selection of a leader would truly represent the will of the people. By making sure every eligible citizen in the United States votes, the accuracy of the democratic system will only get better.
Australia already utilizes mandatory voting, and its turnout averages 95 percent; the remaining 5 percent are null or “none of the above” ballots. Australia’s model proves mandatory voting increases turnout, and similar results can be achieved in the United States.
A compulsory voting system would also reduce income inequality. Alberto Chong and Mauricio Olivera of the Inter-American Development Bank and George Mason University report that nonvoters are, on average, poorer and more likely to be racial minorities. Nonvoters are not less interested in politics, but voting transaction and information costs are higher for them. Compulsory voting would encourage fiscal redistribution since it would increase turnout among people more likely to prefer redistribution policies.
Those opposed to mandatory voting believe that only the ballots of citizens who strongly believe in what they are voting for are valid. While an informed electorate is ideal, it cannot be a requirement for participation. If every eligible voter is required to go to the polls, the intentional inclusion of polarizing ballot propositions for the purpose of getting out the vote of specific voting blocks so they will also vote for specific candidates becomes moot. Mandatory voting equalizes votes and lets all social classes and political interests have a voice. Evidence from pre-election interviews in Europe and the United States demonstrates that exposure to political issues causes voters to become more interested in politics, according to Arend Lijphart of the University of California, San Diego. Mandatory voting encourages interest in relevant issues.
Voters can cast invalid ballots if they do not associate with a certain candidate or party. This choice ensures the accuracy of each ballot. As evidenced by Australia, citizens do choose this alternative.
Implementing and enforcing mandatory voting would make American democracy stronger with each election.
By Hanrui Zhang
Supporters of compulsory voting presuppose more voting implies healthier elections.
The traditional conception of democracy is grounded in numbers. If 51 percent of voters support a candidate, that candidate should be elected. However, any ideal of democracy as the will of the people would also require people’s relative interests be represented; it would be undemocratic if that candidate’s election would have marginal benefits for the majority, but lead to severe harms for the minority. Applying this ideal is problematic since it is impossible to measure the degree to which people are affected by a given policy. However, voluntary voting provides a mechanism for measuring interests; since voting requires effort, people below a certain threshold of interest will not vote, allowing elections to better represent those with more at stake. Mandatory voting provides no way to distinguish voters with greater concern.
The influx of disinterested voters could distort electoral outcomes. A 2009 study by European researchers Peter Selb and Robain Lachat found that voters forced to choose were less informed and interested than regular voters and likely to vote “randomly.” The study concluded mandatory voting makes it more likely election outcomes will not represent voter preferences.
Voting entails costs to the voter. But the chances of one vote affecting the election is close to zero, indicating rational citizens should not vote; the value of voting must stem from expressive, rather than instrumental, benefits from the act itself — like the fun of cheering at a sports game even though your shouts make no difference over the roar of the crowd. Valuing voting as a decision calculus overlooks the shortcomings of aggregation. Democracies pool millions of mostly nonexperts, where the uneducated person’s vote is equivalent to the professor’s. This is not the formula for the most rational conclusion.
But a mandatory expressive act is an oxymoron. Actual choice is required; I have not expressed myself through a required vote; I do not endorse stealing if you take my money at gunpoint. I can choose to express myself by staying home rather than filling a null ballot, an act that could represent disinterest or disenchantment with politics or the government. Forcing participation in the process presumes citizens value the vote. This is problematic for reasoned nonvoters; democracy is about respecting subjective values, but the idea that voting is valuable is itself a value judgment citizens should be able to opt out of.
Finally, there are Constitutional issues with mandatory voting. Many Christians, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe they should not participate in politics. Forcing them to vote seems contrary to freedom of religion.
Losing democratic choice is a steep price. More votes do not mean more legitimate governance if they are coerced.
By Varun Bhave