Participating in the Discussion About Compulsory Voting

by Ali Meyer // Published June 9, 2009
My fellow intern Ceridwen recently wrote a blog called "Maximizing Participation: what the US can learn from compulsory voting," which, as promised, made a case for mandatory voting. She cited America's "long history of electoral discrimination," combined with low voter turnout, which "suggests that many citizens are still unable to take part in the electoral system" or have lost faith in the system. Since FairVote holds no opinion on this issue, in this blog I will attempt to counter her points and then provide a few affirmative reasons to respect the voluntary voting system.

1. Does low voter turnout undermine the legitimacy of the government by showing that it is not representative or responsive to the needs of the people?

No. Low voter turnout only tells us that the people who voted in the election care enough to vote, and that the people who did not vote suffer from a lot of apathy. Voting is not a complex theory; people understand that their participation elicits change or consistency in the government, depending on their opinions. The fact that many people have abstained from participating does not take away from the legitimacy of an elected government because people had a choice to participate and thus to change the government; the fact that they did not choose to participate signals only that they either do not care about the future of the government or that they are confident that any elected government will be responsive to their needs.

2. Is voting comparable to paying taxes or mandatory schooling?

No, for two reasons. First, voting involves choice. Paying your taxes involves no decision making about the future of the country, and neither does going to school. No one asks your opinion about whether or not you would like to pay your taxes, or how much you are willing to part with, or whether or not you want to attend grade school. But voting involves many choices-you have to decide whether you want to vote or not, and if you decide to, who or what you are going to vote for.

The second reason is directly related to the first-voting is a civil right, not a civic duty. Paying your taxes and going to school are civic duties, and are compulsory. But civil rights, like the right to free speech or to bear arms, are never forced upon anyone by nature of their existence. No one will force another to exercise free speech, just as no one will force another to carry a gun. Civil rights have to be fought for, and civic duties tend to be carefully avoided-the 1960s "paying your taxes" movement could never have happened.

3. Is compulsory voting "anti-elitist," and is that the goal of a voting system?

Ceridwen eloquently disagrees with the argument that if everyone were required to vote, we would have a mess of leaders elected by an apathetic, grumpy mass that is uninformed about the issues and the candidates. The fault in this argument, she says, is that "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."

However, one of the most important aspects of voluntary voting is that it does just the opposite of Ceridwen's claim. If anything, voluntary voting provides a more significant enfranchisement, because people have an extra choice-the choice to vote. If we were to restrict individuals from voting due to their levels of apathy, or the degree to which they are informed on the issues, etc, then that would certainly be an example of disenfranchisement-but the opposite is happening. Any citizen can vote, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, or educational standards. They even have the choice not to vote, which is the beauty of voluntary voting systems.

An additional problem arises in a compulsory voting system, which I want to mention briefly-in order to appeal to the broadest base of people, politics would have to be "dumbed down" exponentially. The target audience of politicians would no longer be patriotic Americans concerned with their country's future, but instead a group that will vote for the candidate with the best advertisements or the coolest name.

4. Will introducing compulsory voting make it easier to determine whether voters are dissatisfied with the available candidates or stayed away from the polls due to disenfranchisement or inconvenience?

Compulsory voting will not solve any of these issues. Obviously, voters who were formerly disenfranchised would not be in a compulsory voting system, so that factor will be eliminated. And in a mandated voting system, dissatisfaction with candidates will not be expressed in any more material terms than in a voluntary one; most apathetic citizens who have chosen to exercise their "right to abstain" will only be forced to go to their polling place and exercise their "right to cast an invalid ballot." The same political message-that people are dissatisfied with their government or have lost faith in the political system-will be apparent, only in the latter case people will be forcibly compelled to go to a certain location to express their dissatisfaction. This is completely counter to the ideals of freedom that America is founded on, and is an infringement of civil liberties-voting is a right, not a duty.

Advocates of compulsory voting do have the best intentions in mind; however, the system is so flawed that it will do nothing to advance the causes of democracy and civil rights. It's obvious that a compulsory voting system is not viable in the US because it is so counterintuitive to most Americans. The freedom that underlies the founding of our nation allows citizens to advocate all sorts of crazy systems, but at the end of the day, it is this freedom to choose that will keep America voting voluntarily.