Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”
– Winston Churchill
By Winston Smith
The right to vote has been debated in the halls of Congress, demanded at the convention of Seneca Falls, and defended in the chambers of the Supreme Court. As a citizen, there is no more powerful tool or more sacred act. Participation through the ballot box is the very foundation of representative democracy, and the great equalizer of our society. Yet each election year, be it through systematic barriers, individual laziness, or sheer apathy, a large portion of those eligible to vote just don’t. Typically voter turnout in the United States ranges between 60% in Presidential elections and 40% during midterm elections. In the 2014 election, which resulted in a change of party control in Congress, only a third of registered voters went to the polls. What does it say about the legitimacy of our elections and our system of government if only a little more than half, and sometimes even less, of its citizenry show up to decide who will represent us?
To try to bolster lackluster numbers, steps have been taken to try to increase voter turnout. In all 50 states voters can request an absentee ballot, allowing voters to vote by mail if they are not able to make it to the polls. 37 states and the District of Columbia have instituted an early voting policy which allows qualified voters to cast an in-person ballot during a “designated period prior to Election day.” Three states have even gone as far as to automatically mail a ballot to every eligible voter, no request or application necessary. Unfortunately for him, John does not live in one of those states. These initiatives have resulted in marginally higher turnout rates, but what if they were taken a step further? What if American citizens were required by law to vote? Could one even entertain such a wild concept? Requiring one to actually exercise their constitutional rights?
Enter compulsory voting, which is exactly what it sounds like: citizens by law would be required to go to the polls and vote on election day. If they fail to do this, punishments could be levied on the individual. I mean, that sounds pretty draconian, but is it? There are currently 26 nations that have instituted a form of compulsory voting, among which are Brazil, Greece, and Australia. In Australia all eligible citizens are automatically added to the voter rolls. On election day citizens check in at their local polling station and are given a ballot, which they are free to turn in completely blank should they desire. After voting, they are noted as having participated and continue to live in their Mad Max-esque, magpie dodging, upsidedown lives. Those who do not cast a ballot on election day, and do not have a good excuse for their absence, are charged with a modest fine of about twenty American dollars. No other penalties are levied or rights violated. This system has resulted in an average voter turnout of about 85% (as opposed to just under 60% in countries with voluntary voting) and has even won praise from President Obama.
There are definite, even obvious advantages to compulsory voting. Countries with a well-implemented system regularly see a larger amount of citizen participation in their elections. This increased participation helps to bring more voices and ideas into the public discussion and makes discriminatory laws that aim to disenfranchise groups of citizens ineffective. By increasing the amount of participation in the system, you also lend more legitimacy to the system. A candidate who wins after the input of 85-90% of the citizenry hold more of a mandate to serve then one who wins with the input of only 35-40% of the citizenry.
However, compulsory voting could also lead to a number of issues. The main one being that everyone is going to vote, and I am everyone. Flippant as it may seem, there may be an issue of the low information voter. Now hold on there buckaroos, I’m not here to say that someone has to have a Political Science/Public Policy double major from THE state’s Honors College to know what they are talking about. What is at issue are those that have a weak understanding of governmental structure, what policies may result in, and those who think the world is flat. Now this isn’t just an issue with compulsory systems, there is nothing stopping uncle Ned from voting for the Democrat because he thinks Bush did 9/11. There is no way in which we can prevent those types of voters, and should we? But let’s save voter education for another time.
The major downfall is that compulsory voting does, inherently, take away some measure of individual freedom. Specifically, the freedom to choose not to vote. For many, abstaining from voting is a form of protest, they believe that by not voting for any candidate that they are able to show their displeasure with the candidates, the system, or both. What is key to remember is that voting is not something we do without forethought. Voting is a deliberative act. When we vote we do so with some kind of plan in mind, whether premeditated or not. Therefore, voting is an active embodiment of democracy. It is inherently a choice, and to take away that choice by making it a requirement is contradictory to the nature of democracy.
Implementing a compulsory voting law in the United States is legally and technically possible, but it would certainly be an uphill battle. To this writer’s knowledge, there is no procedural or legislative barrier to the adoption of a compulsory system, though there are possibly constitutional hurdles. Like the scientists of Jurassic Park, the question is not “Can We?” but rather; “Should We?” When we look at what democracy and the freedom to vote means, how could we do anything that would limit that freedom? When we compel someone to do something, we make that person less free. If we have built our system around the fundamental principle of freedom of choice, how could we truly believe in those principles while compelling someone to do something they don’t want to do? Even if it may only cost about the price of a bottle of mid-shelf bourbon, fining me for not doing something is enough motivation to get me to do something. And I don’t like doing things.