The case for mandatory voting in America

If the Internet hasn't made Americans more engaged, it's time for the law to step in.

Mar 1, 2020, 2:00 am*

Internet Culture


S.E. Smith

Hillary Clinton just laid out an ambitious proposal to expand voter participation and increase protections for voting rights through an automatic voter registration program—paired with longer hours at polling places and other measures. Under her proposal, all 18-year-old Americans would be entered into the registry by default—unless they specifically opt out.

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While many aspects of her plan touch on some of the most important issues confronting voter participation in the United States, it’s still not radical enough. The United States needs to join 26 nations around the world (including Australia and Mexico) with a mandatory voting law, requiring all eligible citizens of age to vote at every election. 
The idea isn’t that outlandish: President Obama actually floated the idea during a Cleveland speech in March, implying in his address that he’d been weighing the matter for some time.

To some, the idea of being required to vote might seem antithetical to the American beliefs system—a nation rooted in ideas of freedom and democracy should theoretically be one that allows individuals to decide whether they want to vote—but it should be a core fundamental of our nation’s values. America was founded as a participatory democracy. While that participation was once rather abstract, considering that it was limited to white, land-owning men, that landscape has changed. People who refuse to engage with the democratic system are harming the nation, and arguably, these Americans are dodging an important duty to their country.

At the New York Times, William A. Galson wrote in 2011, “Right now American citizenship is attenuated—strong on rights, weak on responsibilities.” He also pointed out that this isn’t just an issue of poor voter engagement:

Ideally, a democracy will take into account the interests and views of all citizens. But if some regularly vote while others don’t, officials are likely to give greater weight to participants. This might not matter much if nonparticipants were evenly distributed through the population. But political scientists have long known that they aren’t. People with lower levels of income and education are less likely to vote, as are young adults and recent first-generation immigrants.

American politics are suffering due to lack of engagement; without representation, the electorate’s voice is not being heard, and 50 million Americans don’t even bother to register to vote, let alone actually hit the polls each election. These statistics make it impossible to refer to the nation as a true participatory democracy, especially when voter participation is heavily skewed toward white, older conservatives.

A tech and Internet-driven push towards greater engagement has forced the conversation into the public eye repeatedly, just as Rock the Vote did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it hasn’t addressed the fundamental problem. One component of that is the platform. While social media engagement is now essentially obligatory for candidates, for example, they’re primarily reaching an already-existing voter base, not the public as a whole.

President Obama doesn’t show up on YouTube and open himself to questions on Reddit to address the general public; he does it to connect with his supporters, in full awareness of the fact that conservatives and non-voters are likely to tune out. Technology, while a powerful tool, cannot actually force people to the table, and when it comes to voting, it may be time to shift the direction of the conversation, 

However, as Russell Berman points out at the Atlantic, tech can still play a role in voter participation:

Election administration has long been stuck in the 20th century, and while no one seriously talks about online voting these days, the more that states move away from a reliance on paper and toward things like digital data transfer and online registration, the less costly elections will be and the more people will vote.

Rather than making voting optional, not voting should be a conscious choice. The current attitude towards voting in the United States is primarily lazy, with turnout at a scant 37 percent in the 2014 midterms and 57.5 percent in the 2012 presidential race. For smaller elections, particularly those involving local candidates, the numbers are even worse. Despite these numbers, Americans continue to complain about the current political landscape, citing everything from troubling ballot measures to imbalances on court benches.

In a nation where everyone is required to vote, the tenor of the conversation shifts, and the decision not to vote becomes an actual act of protest. Such condemnations of authority do occur in nations like Australia, which have mandatory voting policies, as well as Canada—where voting is not mandatory, but citizens make a point of protesting in style; in Canada, members of the colorful Edible Ballot Society were cited for eating their ballots in 2000.

The organization even has helpful tips for members:

When you receive your ballot from the poll-clerk, be careful. Hold the ballot gingerly between two fingers. If it moves, drop it immediately and step on it. If its stench bothers you, plug your nose. Examine the ballot. If you feel overwhelmed by the vast array of choices, then you are not at a polling station, you are in a supermarket.

Destroying your ballot can be a meaningful act of protest, illustrating voter dissatisfaction and a sense of frustration with the existing system. Simply not showing up, however, is a nebulous statement. By switching to a mandatory voting system, the American political landscape could radically change, forcing voters to consider their role in democracy.

The direction of that potential political shift is up in the air. Studies on who doesn’t vote and why have turned up inconclusive results; some political scientists believe that nonvoters are primarily conservative, while others point to liberal voters. 

And some, like John Sides, a professor at George Washington University writing for the Washington Post, don’t think much will change at all under a mandatory voting system:

Here’s the second important finding: Simulations suggest that compulsory voting would change the outcome of very few elections. This is not only because non-voters often aren’t that different than voters, but also because lots of elections—such as at the House and Senate levels—aren’t that close.

However, he also noted in a followup that sometimes compulsory voting does matter, as illustrated in Australia, a nation with many similarities to the U.S. when it comes to politics:

Australia is the very rare case where we can observe the consequences of the implementation of compulsory voting. Anthony Fowler has found that it increased the vote for the Labor Party by seven to 10 points and also increased spending on pensions.

Mandatory registration and voting would certainly protect the rights of low-income voters of color, who are currently heavily marginalized by voter ID laws and other acts of voter suppression. These voters tend to skew liberal, and it’s possible that might push traditionally conservative communities to the left. Felon disenfranchisement would also theoretically end under a mandatory voting system, restoring voting rights to over five million people, many of whom are young black men.

Some also suggest that mandatory voting could also reduce the influence of money on political elections, but that’s not exactly the case. Campaigns certainly wouldn’t have to spend as much to get out the vote, which would allow them to save money, but it’s unlikely that lobbyists would get out of American politics entirely.

Max Ehrenfreund writes at the Washington Post:

Money is a problem in politics because politicians rely on contributions to run campaigns and get elected. Even when they don’t break the law, these contributions seem certain to influence politicians’ decisions in favor of those with money to give. Mandatory voting would eliminate one major expense of campaigning, the get-out-the-vote operation in the final days before the election. Politicians would still need money to pay staff, travel, and buy TV spots, so they’d still be dependent on their donors and obliged to cater to their whims.

Making voting mandatory doesn’t change the high stakes of power in politics, and in fact, mandatory voting can make it easier to use push misleading advertisements and political propaganda in an attempt to influence voters. We can lead a horse to the polls, but we cannot force the horse to research before casting a ballot.

This, however, may simply end up being a consequence of living in a nation where everyone is required to engage in politics, not just the wealthy or politically engaged. To see the real America, we need to actually see all Americans, and the current electoral landscape doesn’t allow that to happen.

S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with regular appearances in the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

Photo via Theresa Thompson/Flickr via (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jun 9, 2015, 11:13 am