The recent debacle surrounding Brexit, and the frustration over the decision of much of the population which did not vote has led to a resurgence of the question if compulsory voting belongs in the United States. Australia has had voting a mandatory aspect of citizenship for over one hundred years, but some remain unconvinced of its efficacy. While President Obama has advocated for this move in the past, others have said it could never happen in the land of the free. The questions surrounding mandatory voting are questions essential to the interpretation and implementation of democracy.
Democracy is a means to freedom, but no guarantee of freedom in of itself. This is true even if everyone votes, due to the possibility of the tyranny of the majority. However, as Marvin Simkin said, “Democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. Freedom comes from the recognition of certain rights which may not be taken, not even by a 99 percent vote” (Dexter). This is an important distinction, since technically America is a Republic and not a democracy. As “Article IV Section 4, of the Constitution: ‘The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of government’” (Dexter). In this context mandatory voting does not seem like a violation of freedom, but simply a requirement of being a citizen, much like paying taxes.
However, if this essential element of American character, being a Republic, is forgotten or ignored, democracy could be used as a shield to tyranny of the majority. However, “And living in this republic means that every voice matters, majorities do not rule and those with the loudest voices do not automatically win. The will of the people means all of the people” (Dexter). Donald Trump is a keen example of the manifestation of the tyranny of the majority using democracy and fearmongering as a shield for greed and xenophobia. Even as he proposes to be the “freedom candidate”, it would only be freedom for those in his majority, and not for those immigrants he would deport or keep out of the country with a wall. Thus, the more subtle nuances of the value of voting is lost in this climate of manipulation.
However, also largely lost, but coming to light is the fact that a president cannot be elected just by popular vote in the United States due to the Electoral College. For those who were paying attention, this reality is a dead giveaway that American is a Republic and not a democracy, but many Americans are so uninterested or under educated that they do not know the meanings of these words, only having been programmed by the rhetoric. Therein lies another aspect of the debate: if voters do not know what they are really voting for, the power and limitations of their vote, or how that power may be used to limit their freedom, what value is there in more people voting?
Many of those who advocate for mandatory voting do not ask these rather philosophical questions. Rather they point out, “Although the idea seems vaguely un-American, it is neither unusual, nor undemocratic, nor unconstitutional. And it would ease the intense partisan polarization that weakens both our capacity for self-government and public trust in our governing institutions” (Galston and Dionne). Analysts point out that mandatory voting enforcement helps a population see voting more as a civic duty. Even within the republic of the United States, voting does have a strong purpose in revealing the will of the people. As such, it is only logical that, the most straightforward argument for near-universal voting is democratic. Ideally, will take into account the interests and views of all citizens so that its decisions represent the will of the entire people. If some regularly vote while others do not, elected officials are likely to give less weight to the interests and views of non-participants. (Galston and Dionne)
This may be quite true, as the trend of American legislation appear to show. For instance, “In the United States, citizens with lower levels of income and education are less likely to vote, as are young adults and recent immigrants” (Galston and Dionne). While many in this demographic would likely say they do not vote because they do not feel it makes a difference, one cannot help but wonder if the corollary goes both ways? Also complicating this is the change which media, television, and the Internet has created in democratic cultural climate. Before television people got their information from more credible newspapers and local organizers. Now, changes in our political system have magnified these disparities. The decline of formal political organizations, including political machines, has reduced mobilizing efforts that were often year-round propositions and frequently gave life to political clubs that served as centers of sociability as well as electoral action. The sharp drop in union membership since the 1950s has further eroded connections between citizens of modest means and lower levels of formal education to electoral politics. (Galston and Dionne)
As a result of this people have become less engaged in democracy and more open to the manipulative powers of misinformation. During this period corruption has been on the rise in government, regulatory bodies, and in corporations. This may be due to the lack of civic engagement, as after all when the cat is away the mice do play.
Within the framework of American politics greater civic engagement through voting could help stem the tide of corruption and disinterest which has changed the national climate so drastically since the 1950s. The biggest gaps in voter turnout relate with age and income, and if this was closed representatives may have a greater likelihood of truly representing their supporters. Advocates emphasize,
Universal voting would help fill the vacuum in participation by evening out disparities stemming from income, education and age. It would enhance our system’s ability to represent all our citizens and give states and localities incentives to lower, not raise, procedural barriers to the full and equal participation of each citizen in the electoral process. (Galston and Dionne)
Whether or not this participation would translate into politicians who reflected the will of the people remains unknown, as the public has become all too accustomed to campaign promises going unanswered. However, greater participation may stem the tide of these lapses as politicians know that they are likely to be voted out if they do not fulfill their promises as the public is being forced to vote and pay attention. Such a change could lead to a public who is more interested in the choices their leaders make in office rather than salacious details of their private life. A key element of mandatory voting is that,
It would also improve electoral competition. Campaigns could devote far less money to costly, labor-intensive get-out-the-vote efforts. Media consultants would not have an incentive to drive down turnout with negative advertising (even though such advertising would no doubt remain part of their repertoire). Candidates would know that they had to do more than appeal to their respective bases with harshly divisive rhetoric and an emphasis on hot-button issues. (Galston and Dionne)
Considering the amount of money, time, and emotions given over to such non-issues like this is a good case for mandatory voting. Compulsory voting would most likely look like a law being passed requiring all eligible citizens to vote, with an extension on early and absentee voting. Those who do not show up to the polls would be required to pay a small fine, or face a possible court date. One element to consider is “There also isn’t any danger of political speech being compelled—a no-no under the First Amendment. People are free to do what they like with their ballots, including turning them in blank” (Stephanopulos). After all, a blank ballot sends a message all its own.
There is no doubt that nations which enforce mandatory voting have higher civic participation. President Obama understands the need for a more balanced reflection at the polls, as he recently said, “If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country…It would be transformative if everybody voted -- that would counteract money more than anything” (Stephanopulos;Yan). The heavy influence of money due to Citizen’s United may be the best case for enforcing mandatory voting in the U.S., as America has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world. For example, “Less than 37% of eligible voters actually voted in the 2014 midterm elections, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. That means about 144 million Americans -- more than the population of Russia -- skipped out” (Yan). There are efforts both subtle and overt to keep minorities, youths, and poorer demographics from voting in the U.S. so that big money interests will be better represented (Somin). If those road blocks were removed the pressure from these interests would have to flow in another direction-most likely lobbying.
However, there are those who say if voting was mandatory big money would seek an ever greater influence through television advertising and other propaganda. This does have a strong possibility as, “For fairly obvious reasons, relatively ignorant voters are more likely to be influenced by simplistic 30 second ads than relatively well-informed ones (who, among other things, tend to have stronger preexisting views)” (Somin). In this context, poor education on important issues is more pressing than whether or not the choice to vote is made, and if that core issue is not addressed it is unlikely much would change in the political schema. Trends in education have not been moving in this direction, but a motivated public ca always educate themselves.
Mandatory voting in the United States would not be a cure-all for the many ills of the nation, but it could be a step in the right direction towards harnessing the will of the people over the will of big business. Voting may not be the absolute crux of democracy in the American republic, but it does seem as if the absence of it is giving too much sway to those with the loudest voices. Information is power, and if people do not share the information of their desire there are less ways of seeing it manifested collectively. So, it may be time to step beyond the simple polarization of the current political landscape, and embrace a more complete and complex picture of the nation.
Beck, Katie. “Australia election: Why is voting compulsory?” BBC, 27 Aug. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-23810381
Burke, Louise. “After the Brexit vote, Britain must introduce compulsory voting.” The Telegraph, 29 June 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/29/after-the-brexit-vote-britain-must-introduce-compulsory-voting/
Dexter, Carol. “Our Founding Fathers wanted a republic, not a democracy.” The Union, 15 Aug. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.theunion.com/opinion/7699648-113/democracy-majority-fathers-founding
Galston, William A., and E.J. Dionne, Jr. “Should Voting be Compulsory?” Newsweek, 27 Sep. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.newsweek.com/should-voting-be-compulsory-376905
Somin, Ilya. “President Obama endorses mandatory voting.” The Washington Post, 19 Mar. 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/03/19/president-obama-endorses-mandatory-voting/
Stephanopulos, Nicholas. “A Feasible Roadmap to Compulsory Voting.” The Atlantic, 2 Nov. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/a-feasible-roadmap-to-compulsory-voting/413422/
Yan, Holly. “Obama: Maybe it's time for mandatory voting.” CNN, 19 Mar. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/19/politics/obama-mandatory-voting/