The Compulsory Voting Debate
Compulsory voting might seem strange to Americans, where voting is a right but not a legal duty or obligation. But there are arguments in favor of making voting compulsory, as well as arguments against it.
The United States has never come close to establishing compulsory voting. Georgia's state constitution contained a clause penalizing non-voters, but it's no longer effective. Kansas City passed a law penalizing non-voters by imposing extra taxes, but the Missouri Supreme Court struck it down.
Both sides of the compulsory voting debate have several reasons why they think it is or isn't a good idea. This article explains the concept of compulsory voting. It then discusses commonly offered pros and cons of such a policy, starting with the pros.
What Is Compulsory Voting?
Compulsory voting, as the name suggests, is a state or nation requiring all eligible voters to cast a ballot on election day. In countries that use compulsory voting, voters who don't cast a ballot may face legal sanctions.
Belgium was the first country to institute compulsory voting in 1892. Soon after, Argentina and Australia instituted mandatory voting laws. Brazil currently practices compulsory voting, although they exempt the following non-voters from legal consequences:
- Illiterate people
- Anyone over 16 and under 18 years old
- Anyone over 70 years old
Some countries that use compulsory voting also include exceptions. Some countries exempt people with disabilities, citizens living abroad, and various voting ages. Visit the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance for a list of countries with mandatory voting laws.
The Brookings Institution, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and Harvard Kennedy School (Brookings-Harvard working group) published a report on universal civic duty voting in 2020. The report advocates for instituting mandatory participation in elections in the United States. It imagines "an American democracy remade by its citizens in the very image of its promise...". Its underlying principle is that "high levels of participation are good for democracy."
The Brookings-Harvard working group sees voting as a civic duty. They compare its importance to jury duty and defending the country during wars. They suggest a fine of $20 for non-voters. Their goal is not to impose sanctions to penalize. Instead, they suggest a minor penalty to send a "strong message that voting is a legitimate expectation of citizenship."
Compulsory Voting Arguments: Pros
The argument over compulsory voting is still largely theoretical in the United States. The United States will continue to use voluntary voting for the foreseeable future.
However, both sides have the same goal: finding ways to conduct elections that reflect a democratic society's wishes.
1. Mandatory Voting Would Combat Low Voter Turnout and Makes Democracy Work Better
After virtually every U.S. election, many lament how many people stayed away from the polls. Since 1965, approximately 57% of eligible voters vote in presidential elections. Voter turnout at midterm elections is typically even less (approximately 41%).
Those favoring mandatory voting argue that it guarantees that every citizen's voice counts in an election. Theoretically, it provides a more accurate idea of what the electorate thinks of each candidate.
If everyone voted, the government would better represent the will of the people. It would also give less power to special interest groups and "powerful elites," according to the Brookings-Harvard working group.
As the Brookings-Harvard working group notes, compulsory voting "could amplify long-suppressed voices." They specifically note African Americans and other minorities. Compulsory voting, the working group says, would allow these groups a more powerful voice to vote for their preferred policies or solutions to issues they may face.
Finally, the Brookings-Harvard working group notes that an increase in voting could lead to a general increase in "participation in other aspects of civic life."
2. Compulsory Voting Would Change Campaigning for the Better
If the voting system required everyone to vote, it would remove the need for political parties to target groups of people that the candidates believe are important to reach. It would also reduce the impact of single-issue voting. Instead, it would encourage candidates to reflect the broadest spectrum of interests and preferences 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. Mandatory voting laws would diminish that feeling of alienation from the voting and political system.
The Brookings-Harvard working report notes that most of America's politics "typically places the interests of older Americans over the interests of younger generations." Statistics show that young people vote less frequently than older people. So, elections often skew towards the will of older voters. A compulsory voting law would resolve this problem and make American politics more "forward-looking" than it currently is.
4. Compulsory Voting Seems To Work
Data shows that compulsory voting increases voter turnout. Of course, that comes as no surprise in countries that impose serious legal consequences for not voting. But the data shows an increased turnout even in areas where the penalty is mild.
Before Australia made voting compulsory in 1924, its voter turnout was typically less than 60% of the population. After Australia passed the mandatory voting law, turnout rates increased to 91%. Currently, voter turnout in Australia is about 80% of registered voters. Australia imposes an AUD$20 (about US$14) penalty for not casting a ballot.
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 taking elections more seriously would likely have a greater interest in the issues and candidates.
6. Mandatory Voting Would Discourage Polarization
It seems that America is more divided politically than at any time in recent memory. Advocates of compulsory voting say that low turnouts favor inflexible partisanship. If all voters went to the polls, politics would represent and serve a greater variety of philosophies. In theory, it would encourage political candidates to support less extreme views than they otherwise would.
7. Compulsory Voting Would Discourage Voter Suppression
Proponents argue that mandatory voting allows more people to vote by facilitating the process.
According to the Brookings-Harvard working group, a public policy of compulsory voting would necessarily lead to laws and administrative changes to the electoral system. For example, it could lead to automatic voter registration and expanded mail-in voting. This includes convicted felons, people with disabilities, the elderly, and others.
Election officials would also have to ensure everyone could cast their ballot on Election Day. This, in turn, would discourage or block voter suppression entirely.
Compulsory Voting Arguments: Cons
Many people believe compulsory voting would harm U.S. elections and citizens. Forcing people to vote, they argue, would hamper freedom of speech and religion.
1. Compulsory Voting Would Encourage an Uninformed Electorate
Critics note that nothing stops uninformed citizens from voting now. Forcing more uninformed people to vote would mean millions more ballots cast by people who haven't educated themselves on the candidates and the issues.
Proponents argue that citizens may feel compelled to educate themselves on the candidates and issues if they view voting as a civic duty. Eligible voters also have a right to vote whether or not they choose to educate themselves about the candidates or issues.
2. Compulsory Voting Hampers Freedom of Choice
Americans' right to vote also includes the right not to vote if someone chooses. One of the essential elements of democracy is respecting an individual's right to choose. In fact, the First Amendment protects your right not to speak. Critics say that making voting mandatory would infringe this right.
Critics say a law penalizing non-voters infringes their right to free speech by compelling them to vote. They say that if voting is a right, it doesn't make sense to punish someone for declining to exercise that right.
The Brookings-Harvard working group notes that their proposal would not require anyone to vote for a candidate. Instead, they propose a system of mandatory participation. Under their proposal, voters could fill out an option indicating they vote for "None of the Above" candidates.
The working group also proposes exceptions to the rule. For example, the government could allow people to opt out of the voting requirement for religious reasons by providing a conscientious objector option.
3. It Would Cost a Lot of Money and Resources
Critics say enforcing a compulsory vote is an inefficient and costly proposition. They say the potential benefits do not outweigh the potential costs of instituting such a rule.
If the government criminalized non-voting, critics say it would cost taxpayers an unthinkable amount of money to enforce the law. First, law enforcement would need to identify every non-voter. Then, they would have to track them down and ticket them. Finally, an agency would need to process the payments from the non-voters.
4. Compulsory Voting Could Decrease Interest in the Issues
As noted above, some proponents argue that compulsory voting would encourage voters to learn more about elections in general. On the other hand, critics think it could have the opposite effect. They say the mandate could make uneducated voters more apathetic. They worry disinterested voters may cast random votes just to abide by the law.
5. Compulsory Voting Would Mean More 'Spoiled Ballots'
Since the Australian government passed its mandatory voting law, the number of "spoiled ballots" has increased. A spoiled ballot is a ballot that a voter leaves blank or fills out incorrectly. Election officials can't count a spoiled ballot.
Those against compulsory voting say such results don't reflect an engaged electorate. Instead, it demonstrates the adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. In other words, you can make it easy to cast a ballot, but you can't force them to cast a legitimate vote.
6. Compulsory Voting Could Infringe on Religious Rights
Some religious sectors discourage their congregations from participating in politics. Forcing them to do so could infringe on their right to practice their religion.
The Brookings-Harvard work group counters that their proposed compulsory voting system would allow conscientious objectors to base their objections upon their religion.
Questions About Voting Rights? Contact an Attorney
Voting is a foundational part of America's democracy. If you have questions about the election process or your voting rights, consider contacting a civil rights attorney. An experienced attorney can provide you with information about the following:
- How to vote and register for a state or federal election
- Your state's requirements for voting in midterm elections
- Whether an election official's actions infringed your voting rights
For more information, consider browsing FindLaw's Voting section.