Maximizing Participation: what the US can learn from compulsory voting

by Ceridwen Cherry // Published June 8, 2009
In the hotly contested and historic 2008 US Presidential election only 61% of registered voters cast ballots. Considering that the United States has a long history of electoral discrimination, a low participation rate suggests that many citizens are still unable to take part in the electoral system or have lost faith in the political process. Such low voter turnout also undermines the legitimacy of the government as it shows that it is not representative of or responsive to the needs of the people.

Personally I believe the best solution is to adopt compulsory voting,  a view that I readily admit is influenced by having grown up in Australia where voting is legally required. Just as most democratic countries require their citizens to sit on juries, I strongly believe voting should be re-imagined as a required civic act similar to paying taxes or mandatory schooling, both of which are more time consuming and demanding than voting. In my own experience I have never found a legal requirement to vote to be especially onerous. Most Australians agree with me: since its inception compulsory voting has always received the support of a majority of Australians. There is also clear evidence that compulsory voting works: since 1968, in Australia electoral turnout has averaged 95%. In the U.S. over the same period it was barely 54%. Australia is not alone in mandating voter participation: worldwide 32 countries use some form of compulsory voting.

Considering its history of voter disenfranchisement, the US would particularly benefit from the anti-elitist nature of compulsory voting. Some opponents may argue that encouraging all citizens to vote leads to a large electorate of uninformed voters. However, once qualifications beyond minimum age restrictions are imposed on electors, a historically dangerous slippery slope is created, reminiscent of the days when only those of a certain race, sex or economic status could vote. In contrast, when all citizens are required to vote, the opinions of the socially marginalized count just as much as the political elite. This means that when candidates and governments formulate their policies they have to ensure they are working for the entire electorate and not just the well connected. The intended consequence is that government is more representative of the overall needs and desires of the people.

Introducing compulsory voting would also make it easier to determine whether voters were dissatisfied with the available candidates or stayed away from polls due to disenfranchisement or inconvenience. If required to vote, many voters unhappy with the available candidates may opt to cast a "donkey vote" or purposefully spoiled ballot. An invalid ballot is actually a very strong political message and is much easier to interpret than non-attendance because it requires a positive act. A noticeable number of invalid ballots indicate that politicians are not addressing the needs of a significant portion of the electorate and thus can actually be a powerful tool for voters. Implementing a system of mandatory voting would certainly illicit opposition, particularly concerning the "right to abstain." However, due to the internationally respected right to secret ballot, the most a government can do is require its citizens to attend a polling station. Thus "compulsory voting" is a misnomer and is more accurately termed "compulsory turnout". For those who do not wish to vote for any of the candidates a "none of the above" option should be added to the ballot. This would further indicate to the candidates that they were not addressing the needs of their electorate.

Despite its many advantages, I appreciate that there is no realistic chance of compulsory turnout being used in the United States, nor does FairVote support its adoption. Although it should be noted that in the 1770s compulsory voting was used in the state of Georgia. Perhaps mandating participation isn't so un-American after all? While mandatory turnout has little future in the US, electoral systems using compulsory voting can still provide the US with important lessons in increasing turnout and improving the accessibility of voting.

Many Americans do not vote because they are unable to reach a polling station on election day. In contrast, countries that use compulsory voting typically also make voting more convenient, and thus improve voter attendance, a lead the US must follow. Such improvements should include expanded postal voting, pre-polling for those unable to attend on the day, improved absentee procedures for overseas and military voters and mobile polling booths for the infirm and elderly. In jurisdictions where voting is compulsory, elections tend to be held on a more convenient day when fewer citizens have conflicts with work or school (generally Saturday).  Those still unable to attend on election day are allowed to pre-poll or vote by mail.

In addition to improved voter access, jurisdictions that compel citizens to vote also strive to achieve universal voter registration. This reduces the chance that anyone may be disenfranchised due to registration issues. Many countries rely on a national register and automatically enroll citizens to vote. Similarly, the US needs to at least move to an opt-out rather than opt-in system of voter registration. Short of this the government should take a more active role in voter registration, particularly through encouraging youth pre-registration. Governments registering people has been shown to be one of the most powerful predictors of high turnout levels.

There is also more the US can do to encourage citizens to view voting as a civic duty. Several states have recently sought to expand their civic education curriculum. For example Maryland called on county boards to create curriculums that incorporate voter registration and education within the framework of the federally mandated Constitution Day and Citizenship Day to commemorate the signing of the US Constitution. Civic education will not only lead to more engaged and educated voters but may also help to provide the next generation of poll and election workers.

Short of mandating voting there are many ways the United States can increase voter engagement and electoral turnout. When nearly all of the adult population selects their representatives, it really is government "of the people by the people and for the people."  Without a system that supports equal representation, the voices of those who are currently marginalized will remain unheard and the political process will continue to be undemocratic.