This year, more than ever, politicians, celebrities, and organizations have taken it upon themselves to promote the civic act of voting. Hillary Clinton’s DNC speech, along with many others, focused on voter turnout, warning against another “woulda, coulda, shoulda” election. Programs such as Rock the Vote and When We All Vote are sponsoring nationwide initiatives to educate the public on the importance of their civic responsibilities and mobilizing the masses to vote on November 3. And for those who don’t feel comfortable enough to make it to the polls in person in the midst of a pandemic, states are publicizing information on absentee voting as well as making it easier to request a ballot. I have personally helped organize community voter registration drives to spread information and was pleased to see Governor Andrew Cuomo recently pass legislation to make it easier to participate in mail-in voting in my home state.
This got me thinking – why do we need to take such drastic measures to ensure that people will actually vote in November? Why do people need to be bombarded by calls from phone bankers, speeches from politicians, and announcements from their state before they make it to the polls (or, in 2020 fashion, to their mailboxes)?
America has comparatively low voter turnout rates on a democratic world stage. For a nation that has fought for centuries to redefine the image of the American voter, it’s embarrassing. America sees an average of 55-60% of the eligible population (including only 36% of 18 and 19 year olds) voting during a presidential election year and 40% during a midterm year. In perspective, Mexico sees 65%, Germany sees 70%, and Denmark sees 80%. Additionally, those with strongly partisan views are more likely to make it to the polls than moderates. As a result, elected officials tend to hold more extreme views than the general constituency, thus contributing to the polarization of the electorate and gridlock in Congress.
But what if everyone voted? What if voting was mandatory, just like paying taxes or sending your children to school?
Even though it has never been seriously considered in America, the concept is actually a lot less radical than it may sound. In fact, President Obama endorsed the idea in 2015, stating that it would be a step to counter the detrimental influence of money in politics.
27 countries currently practice compulsory voting, averaging a 7.3% higher voter turnout than those without enforced voting. One example of a country that practices mandatory voting is Australia, where the atmosphere surrounding Election Day is very different than it is in America. Queensland resident Neil Ennis explains that “voting in Australia is like a party…Everyone turns up. Everyone votes. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together. We’re all affected by the decision we make today.” To enforce this, a fee of between 20 and 80 Australian dollars (14-60 USD) is imposed on those who fail to cast a ballot. As a result, over 96% of eligible Australians are registered to vote and turnout has remained over 90% in recent decades.
Of course, just because a system is functional in Australia does not ensure successful implementation in America. There are many concerns about this system, notably that it would infringe on voluntary democracy or increase the number of uninformed votes. However, mandatory voting would not infringe on American freedoms with the implementation of widespread write-in voting abilities. Currently, 32 states require prior filing before a write-in candidate is valid, 10 states do not require prior filing, and 8 states do not grant the option of a write-in candidate. With national legislation to ensure the ability to write in any additional name, Americans would never be forced to choose between limited options. America is a democracy and depends on the participation of citizens in government; if taxes are not optional in supporting the nation’s structure, why should voting be?
Additionally, some fear that an excess of “random voting”, or checking off a candidate at random, would de-legitimize the electoral process. This could be addressed by supporting widespread civic education in schools and communities and incorporating learning about the voting process in curriculums beginning in elementary school. The process of compulsory voting would hopefully incentivize learning more about the electoral process because it would become something that everyone needs to do. Nobody likes filing their taxes, but they make sure that they learn how to do it properly because everyone does it, and it’s required.
Lastly, there are concerns about flat-rate fees imposed on citizens who fail to vote. In a nation with extreme economic disparity in the midst of a recession, this could disproportionately harm lower-income communities. A solution would be to implement staggered fees based on income, similarly to how taxes are conducted, and to keep fees reasonably low as to not intentionally cause economic stress.
Compulsory voting would not be a perfect or final solution to democratic reform. It would not single handedly solve problems of ex-felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, lack of access to polling locations, or money in politics. However, it is something to be considered while addressing the many other issues of disenfranchisement and political corruption in our nation. Compulsory voting would shift the focus of campaigns from candidates’ base of support to the entirety of American citizens. It would encourage widespread education on the democratic process, help elect officials who better represent the people, and enforce government by the people, for the people. It’s time that we consider compulsory voting and the benefits that it would provide to our nation.
Molly May is a high school senior from Long Island, New York. She first became interested in politics after the 2016 election and has gone on to work with local campaigns as well as co-found a chapter of High School Democrats for America. Molly is particularly interested in the climate crisis, gender discrimination, and reducing today’s polarized climate. She hopes to combine her love of politics with the analytical skills of mathematics to pursue political science in the future.