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.
10. Voting 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.
9. Making 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.
8. It 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.
7. Mandatory 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.
6. It 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.