10 Reasons Voting Should Be Mandatory
Mandatory voting, in which the registration and participation of all eligible citizens is required by law, continues to be one of the most politically polarizing issues of the modern age. On the one hand, you have those who inveigh against it: claiming that its implementation would undermine their libertarian rights as enshrined in the constitution and that it would corrupt the current system by encouraging the participation of the politically uninformed and uneducated. On the other hand, you have those who censure the choice of those who consciously avoid performing their civic duty, exercising their franchise and having a say in the shape their government takes.
At present, there are twenty-six countries that operate under some system of compulsory voting, the majority of which are found across Europe and South America. Many of these countries enforce the law: Australia, perhaps, being the example best known to the western world, legally obliging its citizens to vote since 1929. Others operate under a system of compulsory voting, but do not enforce it. What is true for all is that each country that has adopted mandatory voting has its own cultural and historical precedent informing the decision: Belgium and Thailand, for example, adopted the system to bypass the possibility of buying votes, while its implementation across Latin America seems to be more rooted in tradition. Yet the benefits are apparent enough that both the electorate and the political classes in countries where voting is optional frequently advocate its introduction.
Britain, India and Bulgaria are just a few countries in recent years to have had its adoption rejected after its formal proposal, but this is not stopping pressure from below, nor distracting a growing number of people from its advantages. Here are 10 reasons why all democracies should enforce mandatory voting.
10Voting is the most written about constitutional right.
Surprising though it may seem, of all the rights outlined in the American Constitution the right to vote features the most. The fourteenth, fifteenth, nineteenth, twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth amendments all preserve it, mainly by setting out penalties for those parties that try to interfere or deny someone their vote. In fact, the twenty-fourth amendment – ratified in 1964 to prohibit having to pay a poll tax for the privilege of voting – has recently been revived and used to attack a suggestion of mandatory voting.
In May 2015 Obama’s suggested that voting should be mandatory, and that a penalty for not doing so could exist in the form of a reverse poll tax that would fine non-participants. The idea isn’t novel: they implement almost the same system in Australia. Indeed, short of a written letter explaining why illness, travelling difficulties or any other practical obstacles prevent you from doing so – something like a doctors note getting you out of gym class for adults – citizens who don’t turn up and vote face being landed with an incremental $20 fine.
One of Obama’s most outspoken opponents to this suggestion was Hans Von Spakovsky. Writing in the Daily Signal, Spakovsky used the twenty-fourth amendment to argue that making voting mandatory would infringe upon one of an American citizen’s most cherished rights: the liberty be left alone by the government. Though well articulated, Spakovsky’s article falls flat on two important points. Firstly, the ‘right not to vote’, as an idea, is seriously flawed. And secondly, when it comes to the privilege of not having to vote, license should not be equated with laziness.
9Making it mandatory would lead to greater political awareness
There is no question that many people are disengaged with politics, as reflected recently by some shockingly low turnout figures both on a local and national level. Unfortunately, it’s precisely this disengagement with the world of politics that skeptics and critics of mandatory voting use to ridicule the idea. In March 2015, Fox News introduced a segment on mandatory voting by showcasing and sniggering at two particularly misinformed members of the public. Using them as an example, the presenter rhetorically asked whether anyone would want people as stupid as these to exercise their vote. In doing this, they completely missed the point.
Making voting mandatory would increase people’s political awareness, even if it were only as superficially as knowing the country’s major parties and their broad policies. Indeed, there is quantitative evidence proving that citizens living in countries where they are made to vote are more politically knowledgeable than those in countries where voting isn’t obligatory. Nor should mandatory voting be constrained to party politics. In more direct democratic exercises such as referendums, mandatory voting would force people to engage with whatever question were posed – if not at a profound analytical level, then at least as superficially as reading it, briefly processing it and then voting on it. At the very least, the introduction of compulsory voting would see if not the reduction then the end of that group of people who pride themselves on their political ignorance because it ‘does not affect them’ by involving them directly in the political process and making them active contributors rather than passive receptors.
8It would also signify greater civic engagement
One of the key ingredients of a healthy and socially cohesive society is trust in the government (or, failing this, trust that the government has at least been elected by a strong majority of the enfranchised population). The reasons for this are twofold: it ensures that the legislative direction of the government more accurately reflects the people’s will, and it gives the government the strong democratic legitimacy required to carry out the changes it intends.
Compulsory participation in a number of civic institutions already exists: attending public education, fulfilling jury service and paying taxes, for example, are rites from which we cannot escape. So why should voting be? A number of retorts are often given to this question, most of which, as Eric Liu argued, reflect nothing more than a pessimistic valuation of democracy. Mandatory voting will lead to worse policymaking? This assumes that current policymaking is at its apex. Mandatory voting would lead to the vote becoming devalued? Only on the assumption that people will turn out in droves either to spoil their vote or to vote without any consideration; a particularly cynical and regressive position, the next logical step of which would surely be imposition of some kind of intellectual requirement for enfranchisement.
Greater participation would mollify the growing sense of disillusionment and isolation that many people today feel with politics. It would ensure that more people were involved the election of lawmakers, and through a process of participation it would increase the likelihood that such laws and regulations would be complied with.
7Mandatory voting doesn’t infringe on your liberties
To some, mandatory voting evokes draconian images of state coercion, corruption and moral and political self-compromise in having to vote for someone who you don’t like or with whose policies you don’t agree. Scenes of this sort, however, are entirely inaccurate and belong more to the electioneering campaigns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before the introduction of the secret ballot and criminalization of vote buying.
Current practices in countries operating under mandatory voting systems provide some insight into what its introduction to the US might look like. In Australia, as already mentioned, you have to show up to cast your ballot or be levied with a modest fine but what you do when you’re there is your prerogative. Indeed, if you want to cast a blank ballot in order to express your dissatisfaction with any of the given candidates you’re entirely at liberty to do so (though the preferential voting system arguably allays this urge by allowing greater flexibility). Granted, being obliged to show up and cast a ballot it infringes on ‘one’s individual autonomy to be left alone’, but the end result (a cheap, corruption-free, easily accessed system with an approval rating exceeding 70 percent) absolutely justifies the means.
Once unable to slate mandatory voting for its anti-libertarianism, one of the only arguments left is that its implementation would be a bureaucratic nightmare –
a costly, time-consuming and database-driven operation in no way offset by the benefits of mass voter participation. We should be cautious when bureaucratic arguments in favor of maintaining the status quo are put forward, however, as they normally reveal amongst their advocates a vested interests in the political orthodoxy and a fear of what might happen if the focus were to shift.
6It focuses politicians on the bigger issues
The introduction of mandatory voting would sound the starting gun on the race to win over the middle or floating voter, and because winning over these types of voters would be the priority, politicians would be more likely to hone in on some of the bigger issues. The economy, jobs, foreign policy and education would be given more airtime, as they already are in countries like Australia, as opposed to more marginal and partisan American wedge-issues such as, as this Atlantic article puts it, ‘guns, gays or abortion.’
Indeed, as former policy advisor and current chair of the Brookings Institution William Galston has recently conjectured, the current and particularly overrepresented crop of partisan voters would be left on the extreme fringes, abandoned by politicians who would have gravitated towards more moderate ground where the majority of votes tend to be found. There would also, in all likelihood, be another seismic political shift shaped by the makeup of the newly enfranchised and currently underrepresented groups. At present, it’s the more disadvantaged societal groups that are most in need of representation: the younger, the less educated, the less prosperous, the unemployed; not to forget the indigenous or the newly naturalized. With mandatory voting these groups would vote, out of self-interest, for those most likely to represent them and better their conditions, and these representatives almost always make up the left wing. Indeed, in Australia there is evidence that mandatory voting generally favors the Labor Party, meaning that its implementation in the US would probably favor the Democrats. Make no mistake; this is something about which both sides are all too aware.
5It would go a long way towards tackling social inequality
When predicting the ramifications of mandatory voting in the US, Obama said that it would ‘completely change the political map in this country.’ The cartographic metaphor is an effective one – compelling people to exercise their vote would not only lead to a marginal shift that would be visible in the congressional makeup, but would redraw the borders of everyday American society.
At home, the data is unambiguous in showing the correlation between poverty stricken areas and areas with lower voter turnout. Outside the US, statistics from a survey of OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries – nine of which have a form of mandatory voting – confirm that the trend is international, attesting to a 13 percent disparity in turnout between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent of a country’s earners. This may not seem much, but is significant if we consider the small margins by which elections are often won. Of course, there are anomalies. For whatever cultural, political or economic reason, Latin American countries – many of which enforce some model of mandatory voting – continue to manifest wider income equality than European, Asian or Eurasian countries. However, the fact is that our current system is skewed in favor of those with resources and influence, offering little voting incentive to those who have no hope of direct access to their elected representatives.
Politicians are excellent listeners and service providers, but at present they only listen to those who reciprocate by empowering them. Perhaps we ought to remember that politicians are also (often notoriously) chameleon-like in their ability to adapt, and a different group of voters would effect a different set of political priorities.
4And would significantly narrow the gender gap
Ever since Reagan’s victory in 1980, the gender gap – within which race, age and every other demographic also follow suit – has been an observable yet intractable issue in the culture of the US electorate. Statistically less women vote than men, the reason for which may just as easily relate to political education and awareness as well as engagement in political culture. Indeed, several studies have confirmed that women score comparatively lower than men when quizzed on their country specific political knowledge. At the same time, however, there is also strong evidence that countries with compulsory voting boast a much smaller gender gap in political knowledge, even accounting for other extenuating factors. Mandatory voting, in short, mitigates the gender gap.
Historically, women have had a much harder time in getting the vote. In the US, universal women’s suffrage didn’t enter into the constitution until 1920, while in Britain, despite the publically shocking events and tactics that marked the suffragette movement, it took until 1928 for universal women suffrage to become accepted. Testament to how far we’ve come is the fact that the US is within reach of its first, though by no means ideal, female president while running against her is a demonstrably misogynistic demagogue. Now, more than ever, women should be rushing to the polls to exercise their right to vote. Yet women, according to a 2004 Rutgers University study, make up a greater proportion of swing and undecided voters than men. Whether they buck the trend by exercising their right, therefore, will become clear only after November 8.
3 Mass voter participation defines democracy
The key to democracy is in the word’s etymology. Diffused into every global vernacular, the word derives from the ancient Greek compound noun which combined demos (people) and kratia (power). There have, of course, been many different variations of kratia that have permeated their way into modern discourse: autocracy, technocracy and plutocracy being just a few. All of these are viable if not tested forms of government, but none contain the same egalitarian principles as democracy.
Of course, the problem is that in order to function effectively and represent the people’s will, democracy requires mass participation. Turnout figures across countries where voting is optional rather than mandatory are, by required standards, pathetically low. In the 2012 US election, a mere 53.6 percent of Americans turned up to vote, and the picture is even bleaker when we look at the midterms: ever since the 1940s, turnout has sat at under 50 percent, effectively meaning that the majority of the population doesn’t have a say on who controls congress. On a local level, in the Chicago mayoral elections of February 2015 a pathetic 32.7 percent of eligible adults participated in electing their official representative.
Compare this to turnout figures in countries where voting is obligatory and, unsurprisingly, you see and altogether different picture. Belgium, Turkey, and Sweden where voting is mandatory, boast the highest turnout among developed countries with around 87, 84 and 83 percent respectively. Nobody would suggest for a moment that these countries are in any way utopian. But they at least instill in their citizens a shared cultural belonging in which political participation is more of a duty than a right.
2 And politically engaging people would make democracy healthier
When only a minority of people exercise their franchise, democracy morphs into oligarchy, in which power is concentrated in the hands of the few. There’s a good case to be made that such a system is already in effect, as demonstrated by the caliber of the 2016 presidential candidates. Clinton, for all her principles, embodies dynasticism (though, of course, this isn’t a historical first), while Trump – though he’s currently lagging behind in funding his campaign – symbolizes the prevalent role of wealth in modern democracy. As Obama suggested, mandatory coting would at least curb the influence of the latter.
Money’s permeation of electioneering is not the only problem threatening the health of our democracy, however. As mentioned towards the beginning, the electorate’s political awareness is another vital symptom of a democracy’s health, and an example of a democratic system in current need of treatment, believe it or not, is that of the UK.
The checkup that revealed the problem was the European Union Membership referendum, held on June 23, 2016. The referendum asked: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union’. With a turnout of 72.21 percent and a majority vote of 51.89 percent, the UK voted to leave. The youth turnout, comparatively, was very low: 36 percent of young people didn’t turn up to vote. Some were rolling around in mud at the annual Glastonbury Festival, but many just couldn’t be bothered, or didn’t think it would be important. It turns out, however, that in this case their decision to abstain may have been very costly.
1It might just stop terrible political decisions from being made
Political choices are, by nature, amongst the most subjective choices around, and anyone suggesting that compelling people to vote could prevent bad choices from being made must be ready to face a counter-assertion. Britain’s departure from the EU, however, is a recent example of a political decision that, as the months go on, appears increasingly and unequivocally to have been a bad one.
The fallout from the referendum has been cross-party political meltdown, a currency crash, and a shock loss of market confidence that will most likely see the mass exodus of UK businesses to the mainland. It’s not surprising then that a bizarre situation, confirmed by several polls, is now unfolding. There are now more people who would prefer that the UK remains in Europe than leaves, meaning that if the referendum were to be held again today the remain side would win. Crucial in swinging the vote would be the youth vote – deemed most likely to vote remain, not least because of the more tangible benefits they had from membership of the EU: freedom of movement and work around the Eurozone being one of them.
Perhaps even more staggeringly (and painting a sorry picture of the level of political education in the UK), according to a British Election Study most people who voted leave in June’s EU referendum thought that the UK wouldn’t actually leave and that there’s was just a protest vote. This possibly unprecedented level of political suicide amongst the electorate has already seen a hot of negative results. Further still, the powers that be have spoken and there is to be no second referendum. This can only be hypothetical, of course: but if mandatory voting had been in effect it’s highly probable that swing voters would have cast their ballot and made the crucial difference, saving the country potentially years of future pain.
Mandatory voting, for all of the negative attention it generates, is actually a misnomer. With the existence of the secret ballot, nobody can be forced to vote for someone they dislike. They can, however, be forced to participate in an exercise that gives validity to the political system under which we live. If this is too strong an infringement on the civil rights of a citizen, perhaps they should consider their right to consider themselves as such.
Without any legal or financial incentives to register and vote, people can easily justify their abstention as disillusion. In reality, it may be nothing more than a mask for their lack of political education or their laziness. We’re all too familiar with people who proudly proclaim that they’re ‘not involved in politics’, but mandatory voting – in forcing people to address themselves to and educate themselves in politics in at least the most rudimentary of ways – would make these words as redundant as the political ghosts to which they belong.
In more practical terms it would go a long way towards bridging social divides amongst racial, gender and economically disparate groups and towards reinvigorating a democratic system that represents the issues that the majority of people actually care about. And it could easily happen; all it would take is for one city to start the ball rolling and within years we could have a reenergized democracy, a reenergized civic identity and a reenergized society.