The Compulsory Voting Debate

Compulsory voting might seem strange to Americans, where voting is a long-fought-for right, but not a legal obligation. But there are arguments in favor of making voting compulsory, as well as arguments against.

The United States has never come close to establishing compulsory voting, though the topic is brought up occasionally. Only one state, Georgia, has had such a law, and it was abolished early in the state's history.

Both sides of the compulsory voting debate have several reasons why they think it is or isn't a good idea. Let's take a look at some commonly offered pros and cons to such a policy, starting with the pros.

Compulsory Voting Arguments: Pros

No less a figure than Barack Obama has spoken out about compulsory voting advantages. He has said that it would give traditional non-voters such as young adults and minorities a nudge toward the polls.

1. Mandatory Voting Would Increase Voter Turnout

After virtually every U.S. election, many lament how many people stayed away from the polls. In the 2016 presidential election, one of the most hotly contested in recent history, the turnout was only 55 percent. Voter turnout at mid-term Congressional elections is almost always even less.

Those in favor of mandatory voting state that it would guarantee that every citizen makes his or her voice heard, and would theoretically provide a more accurate snapshot of what the electorate really thinks of each candidate. Thus, government would be represented by a true majority and not an active clutch of special-interest groups.

Before Australia made voting compulsory in 1924, voter turnout in that country hovered around less than half. After, not surprisingly, turnout rates soared, and are now at around 80 percent. When voting is characterized as less a right than as a civic duty, more people are likely to go along with it.

2. Compulsory Voting Would Change Campaigning for the Better

If everyone was required to vote, it would remove the need to target campaign efforts to groups of people candidates think it's important to reach. This would reduce the impact of single-issue voting, since candidates would need to reflect the broadest spectrum of interests and preferences possible.

When voter turnout is low, leadership and policy initiatives tend to be concentrated in the hands of a small minority of citizens. This often comes at the expense of younger, low-income, and minority citizens. Knowing that they will be representing all the people and not just the politically ambitious could make for more honest campaigns designed to appeal to as many people as possible.

3. Compulsory Voting Would Encourage Engagement in the Political Process

People often don't vote because they don't feel it makes any difference to them as individuals. Being encouraged, or even required to participate, some say, would diminish that feeling of alienation from the system. It would also make easier the job of civic groups whose mission it is to encourage voting among certain geographical or demographic groups.

4. Compulsory Voting Seems to Work

Studies have found that compulsory voting really does increase voter turnout, even in areas where the penalty for not voting is mild, if there is one at all. Other initiatives that don't put the burden on the voter — such as Sunday elections or automatic voter registration — do make a difference in turnout, but not like the impact made by making voting mandatory. Adding compulsory voting to those less heavy-handed methods of encouraging voting could have a dramatic effect on voter participation.

5. Compulsory Voting Would Encourage Informed Voting

Wanting to make the most of their vote, citizens would become savvier about spotting pie-in-the-sky campaign promises and negative campaigning. An electorate that takes elections more seriously is one that wouldn't be as likely to be apathetic about the issues.

6. Mandatory Voting Would Discourage Polarization

It seems that America is more divided politically than any time in recent memory. Advocates of compulsory voting say that low turnouts favor inflexible partisanship. If all voters went to the polls, a greater variety of philosophies would be served, and political leaders would be less likely to cater to extreme views.

7. Compulsory Voting Would Discourage Voter Suppression

Some argue that mandatory voting would allow more people to vote by facilitating the process. The state would be required to ensure everyone is able to vote, including those in prisons, nursing homes, and without a way to pay for transportation to the polls. This, in turn, would discourage voter suppression.

Compulsory Voting Arguments: Cons

Many people believe that compulsory voting would harm both our elections and U.S. citizens. Forcing people to vote, they argue, would hamper freedom of choice and religion. It would also negatively affect how politicians run their elections and how people vote.

1. Compulsory Voting Would Encourage an Uninformed Electorate

Nothing is stopping politically ignorant citizens from voting now. Forcing more of those people to vote would mean millions more ballots cast by people who haven't educated themselves on the candidates and the issues.

Some studies show that uninformed voters are easily swayed by television advertising. Increasing the number of those people to be reached would mean a surge in advertising that is misleading and aimed at appealing to voters' prejudices. In other words, if you think today's elections are filled with nasty, negative campaign ads, encouraging candidates to woo all voters would make it that much worse.

2. Compulsory Voting Would Hamper Freedom of Choice

Americans' right to vote also includes the right not to vote if someone so chooses. One of the essential elements of democracy is respecting an individual's right to choose. Making voting mandatory would infringe on the right of people to also not choose.

That effect would be even more pronounced if failing or refusing to vote was punishable by law. Imposing a penalty on someone because they decided not to vote would be unlawful, some argue, since declining to vote harms nobody and violates no individual's rights.

If voting is a right, it doesn't make sense to punish someone for declining to exercise that right — any more than it would make sense to punish someone for not exercising their right to choose the religion they wish to practice. In other words, an obligation is not the same as a right.

3. It Would Be a Burden to Law Enforcement

If failing to vote became a crime, it would cost an unthinkable amount of resources to enforce such a law. For one thing, weeding out the names and locations of those who didn't vote would take a huge amount of time. Then, tracking them down and serving them with a ticket (or whatever punishment is mandated) would be a big next step. Finally, there would be a matter of collecting the fines. Enforcing a compulsory vote, detractors say, would be an inefficient, costly proposition with little to gain.

4. Compulsory Voting Could Decrease Interest in the Issues

While some argue that compulsory voting would encourage themselves to learn about the issues, others counter that it would have the complete opposite effect — that the mandate would only make uneducated voters more apathetic and likely to cast a random (and thus wasted) vote.

5. Mandatory Voting Would Steer Candidates Away From Their Base

As we've discussed, less informed voters tend to be more easily persuaded. With a mandatory vote, candidates could go after that low-hanging fruit for the sake of racking up higher vote totals, leaving behind their more committed network of support.

6. Compulsory Voting Would Mean More “Spoiled" Ballots

In Australia, since voting has become compulsory, there has been an increase in “spoiled" ballots. That occurs when voters, either by accident or on purpose, submit a ballot that's either blank or filled in wrong. Those votes can't be counted. Those against compulsory voting say such results don't reflect an engaged electorate — rather, it demonstrates the old adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink it.

7. Compulsory Voting Could Infringe on Religious Rights

Some religious sectors discourage their congregations from participating in politics. Forcing them to do so by voting could make some citizens uncomfortable, even causing them to feel like they're going against the wishes of their church.

The Same Goal

While the argument over compulsory voting is still largely a theoretical one in the United States, both proponents and opponents of the practice have the same goal: finding a way to conduct elections that reflect the wishes of a democratic society.

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