Carolyn Copeland for Prism
In the months leading up to Election Day, Americans are constantly bombarded with Get Out the Vote efforts by organizations, politicians, and celebrities. We’ve all heard the ads begging people to register to vote. We’ve heard political candidates tell us that “this is the most important election of our lifetime” in order to mobilize eligible voters. But while these efforts can certainly be effective, they generally don’t result in an impressive voter turnout.
In 2018, a Pew Research Center survey found that 70% of Americans think voting in presidential elections is important. That same study also found that 78% of people think it is critical for the public to be informed about candidates and their policies. But even with the majority of Americans acknowledging the importance of voting, our turnout rate is still embarrassing—particularly when compared to other nations. If Americans maintain an ambivalent attitude about voting, or only vote when they’re excited about a particular candidate, important elections will eventually be decided by only a handful of people. This is why Americans should actively consider adopting a compulsory voting system.
The concept of compulsory voting is not new. Today, 22 countries have compulsory voter participation. While some countries like the United States consider voting a democratic right, others view it as a civic responsibility. Take Belgium, for example. Belgium first adopted compulsory voting in the late 1800s. In many of those countries, failing to vote without a sufficient excuse can result in penalties like small fines or even passport confiscation. Currently, Belgium’s average turnout rate for general elections is 90 percent. Massive voter turnout rates can also be found in countries with similar policies like Australia and Brazil. In contrast, America’s last presidential election in 2016 drew approximately 58 percent of eligible voters to the polls.
Australia’s compulsory voting system, which was adopted in the 1920s, has been credited for an inflated number of stable and moderate candidates being sworn into office. Presumably, this is because the law forces candidates to appeal to the broader population, rather than spending all of their time working to energize a small group of likely voters.
With a high number of candidates with extreme ideologies on both sides of the political aisle in America, compulsory voting is likely the most effective way to tone down divisive rhetoric and produce more reasonable policies by candidates. It would also shine a spotlight on lawmakers, holding them more accountable to the people they represent. In a country where lawmakers are beholden to the lobbyists who funnel money into their campaigns, implementing a law requiring all eligible citizens to vote would divert attention away from special-interest groups and return it to constituents.
One of the biggest benefits of compulsory voting in America would be the elimination of voter suppression. Although the 1965 Voting Rights Act drastically improved voter turnout and preserved the rights of minority communities, actions by the Supreme Court to dismantle key provisions have made the problem even more widespread. States around the country have been making an effort to restrict the votes of certain demographics. The American Civil Liberties Union says the states with the highest voter turnout in 2008 were Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, New Hampshire, and Colorado. All five states later introduced laws creating additional obstacles to vote. These harsh restrictions on voting have been proven to disproportionately impact Democrats and minority voters. Tactics to suppress votes include voter ID laws, the purging of voter rolls, technical problems at polling stations creating long lines, and insufficient information on polling locations. Compulsory voting would not only phase out this problem entirely, it would likely generate more faith and trust in our electoral system. When citizens believe elections are being run fairly and that all eligible people who want to vote have access to do so, the country can rest more comfortably and government officials can work more efficiently. Compulsory voting would also make more people accountable to civic responsibilities like jury duty, resulting in more diverse juries.
While some countries impose fines on citizens who opt out of voting, America wouldn’t necessarily have to follow suit. According to the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an organization that works to support and strengthen democratic institutions and processes around the world, compulsory voting laws don’t need to be enforced in order to be effective.
“Some laws are created to merely state the government’s position regarding what the citizen’s responsibility should be,” the organization’s website says. “Although a government may not enforce mandatory voting laws or even have formal sanctions in law for failing to vote, the law may have some effect upon the citizens. For example, in Austria voting is compulsory in only two regions, with sanctions being weakly enforced. However, these regions tend to have a higher turnout average than the national average.”
Historically, Americans don’t like to be forced into doing anything, regardless of whether it’s good for the country. Even with a policy like compulsory voting, there would still be uninformed voters and people who begrudgingly cast a ballot out of obligation to the government. However, the American voting process has never required citizens to be informed about issues in order to vote. There is no evidence to guarantee the percentage of uninformed voters would be any higher than it is now.
Above all, the biggest priority should be making sure citizens are heard by the people they put in power. Requiring voting by law is the most logical and effective way to ensure everyone has a say in how the government is run.