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Is voting a civic right or a civic duty?

The U.S. has a turnout problem, but mandatory voting isn’t the way to fix it.

Voters Across The Country Head To The Polls For The Midterm Elections
Voters cast their ballots at a polling station set up at Grady High School for the midterm elections on November 6, 2018, in Atlanta, Georgia. 
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Voter turnout could hit a 50-year record for the 2018 midterm elections.

Yet, even if 50 to 60 percent of eligible voters show up at the polls this year, that number will still be very low in comparison to most other developed countries’ turnout statistics. In the 2016 general election, turnout was 55.7 percent, which placed the U.S. 26th out of 32 highly developed democratic countries.

One solution gets a lot of attention right after every election cycle as a response to the abysmally low turnout numbers: make voting mandatory. Barack Obama once said compulsory voting could be “transformative” and could counteract the role of money in politics “more than anything.”

Compulsory voting is often pitched as the silver bullet to the many ills of American democracy, with the assumption that high turnout is always good. But an overview of the literature on compulsory voting and some case examples show that even worse than low turnout might be alienated voters.

The history of compulsory voting

Compulsory voting isn’t a new concept. It’s been in place in Belgium since 1893, Australia since 1925, Brazil since 1934, and Turkey since 1986. It’s been adopted for reasons such as colonial heritage and as a method for curbing the purchase of votes. In total, 27 countries in the world mandate that their citizens vote, and the degree to which compulsion is enforced varies.

In Belgium, compulsory voting was introduced alongside universal suffrage as a way to avoid vote-buying. Today, every citizen above the age of 18 must vote. Although citizens who fail to turn out on Election Day can be fined and precluded from voting for 10 years or from applying for appointments or promotions in the civil service, legal constraints are rarely applied.

“In other words, compulsory voting in Belgium is more a moral than a legal obligation. Yet, the vast majority of voters do turn out on Election Day,” writes researcher Jean-Benoit Pilet. In 2014, 89.4 percent of registered voters in Belgium voted in the parliamentary elections for the federal Chamber of Representatives.

Australia made voting compulsory after a decline in turnout from more than 71 percent at the 1919 election to less than 60 percent at the 1922 election. Today, enrollment and voting are compulsory for Aussies aged 18 or older, and those who fail to “show up” and are unable to provide sufficient reason are required to pay a $15 fine. As of September 30, 2018, 16,176,487 Australians were enrolled to vote. In 2016, the most recent election, 86.5 percent of voters cast a ballot.

Brazil is the largest democracy in the world with compulsory voting. It dates back to 1932, with the enactment of that year’s Electoral Code. There, voters also have to pay a fine if they fail to show up at the polling station without providing reasonable justification. That fine varies from $0.96 to $9.53.

Other penalties for not voting include being denied a Brazilian passport or ID, a federal loan, or access to public universities. Brazilians are also summoned to work at polling stations, and those who forsake that obligation must pay a fine.

In the most recent elections, where Brazilians voted for executive and legislative offices, turnout was 104.8 million people, out of 147.3 million eligible voters.

Why people are attracted to compulsory voting

Today in the U.S., 38 states offer online voter registration; 16 allow voters to register on Election Day; and 37 have some form of early voting. And yet, large swaths of Americans don’t vote. But not all nonvoters are the same: Nonwhite and Hispanic Americans were more likely to stay home than white voters. Age and income are also determinants of who stays home.

This turnout gap often manifests itself into voting inequalities. The thinking goes: Politicians and elected officials are always trying to appeal to their base. That is, the voters they know they can count on, or the small numbers of voters who will definitely vote but aren’t the base — the swing voters. So proposals and policies are likely to reflect the preferences of those people.

Essentially, that turnout gap means that white, wealthy, and college-educated Americans get to speak louder than their fellow compatriots when it comes to whose priorities and preferences are considered in the policy process.

In turning voting not only into a civic right, but also into a civic requirement, proponents of mandatory voting see it as the most straightforward solution to increasing turnout numbers and making elections and, consequently, policies, more equal and inclusive.

Not only that, some argue compulsory voting has spillover effects such as better-informed voters, a more even distribution of political knowledge throughout the electorate, and cheaper campaigns (since turnout is guaranteed). Others also argue that it encourages politicians to engage with larger swaths of the electorate and thus be more moderate.

The hidden costs of compulsory voting

Compulsory voting accomplishes the basic task it sets out to do: to get the highest percentage possible of eligible voters to leave their homes on Election Day. And yet compulsory voting isn’t the solution to low voter turnout.

The simplest case against compulsory voting is that it negates the premise that while citizens ought to have the right to vote, they should also be free to choose not to vote.

Voters, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, assess the perceived costs to voting vis-à-vis its perceived gains when deciding whether or not to cast a ballot. Those costs can include, but are not limited to, issue salience, the ease with which voters are able to register to vote and to cast a ballot, a country’s electoral system, the frequency of elections, and when in the week elections are held.

Other reasons why forcing individuals to cast a ballot isn’t the solution to better democracy include the fact that people make bad choices sometimes, not because they’re evil or stupid, but because they have preferences and biases and will use shortcuts instead of deeply pondering the benefits and trade-offs of any given policy proposal.

Compulsory voting may also lead to democratic inequalities, where the burden for not voting is highest on those who can bear it least. In Brazil, for example, those tend to be voters for whom interaction with the state is unavoidable. Anyone who’s likely to rely on transactions with the government in the form of benefits, pensions, severance pay, etc., ends up paying a higher penalty for not voting.

But most importantly, voter turnout shouldn’t be the sole measure of a successful democracy. A healthy democracy depends on the quality of the governance and the candidates, too. Higher turnout doesn’t guarantee higher quality candidates or more responsiveness. More isn’t necessarily better.

University of Sydney professor Simon Jackman has argued that compulsory voting “creates a steady guaranteed supply of disgruntled voters that cannot exit the system. … Those voters are typically alienated, distracted and feel as though the major parties are not speaking to them.” Alienated and distracted voters can be, in turn, more susceptible to demagoguery and protest platforms.

That Brazil and Turkey, the two largest countries in the world with compulsory voting, are not shining stories of liberal democracy at the moment is worth noting. For a recent example of what alienated voters look like, look no further than Brazil’s presidential election results, where 9.5 percent of the electorate cast blank or spoiled ballots largely as a way to protest a system and a race they wanted no part in.

Turkey’s voting system has been deemed the most unfair in the world because if parties don’t win at least 10 percent of the seats, they must forfeit all of their seats, which are then reallocated to the larger parties. So people are required to vote, but their votes may effectively not count.

In an extensive overview of the consequences of compulsory voting, researcher Gabriela Sainati Rangel writes that “Individuals living under compulsory voting rules are also more likely to report higher rates of party attachment” which, in the American two-party system, could lead to even more polarization and winning governments with weaker governing mandates.

Rangel also finds that while compulsory voting may lead parties to move away from mobilization, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it results in outreach that’s more inclusive. In fact, with compulsory voting, “parties are likely to shift their outreach strategy from mobilization to persuasion, by reaching out to voters that are less partisan and thus can be more easily persuaded.”

Finally, Rangel writes that “Taken together, the voter turnout question seems to be the only dimension of the effects of compulsory voting that has found clear answers through empirical research.”

Still, for those who see compulsory voting as the best way to fix turnout, low levels of enforcement seem to work just as well as high levels of enforcement, without the undesired effect of harming certain segments of the voting population.

But if not compulsory voting, what then?

There are better ways to get people to vote than fining them for not voting

The solution to low turnout is to create advantages to voting that surpass any disadvantages of doing so, without punishing voters. Reforms such as Election Day registration and automatic voter registration are proven to have a positive effect on turnout and could be a start.

Other proposals, like proportional representation and ranked choice voting, can elevate voters’ perception of political efficacy. As my colleague Lee Drutman has pointed out, “because more parties are competing for voters; because voters are more likely to feel like their voters matter; and because voters are more likely to have the chance to vote for a candidate they are excited about, proportional representation systems tend to have higher voter turnout — without the force of a compulsory voting system.”

Rob Richie of FairVote writes that ranked-choice-voting in U.S. localities has already led to higher turnout, since it allows voters to choose their number one candidate, while also allowing them not to “waste their vote” by choosing a secondary preference for someone from among the more viable candidates.

Compulsory voting isn’t the surefire way of fixing the problem of turnout in the U.S. that many deem it to be. Its proponents should take into account the indirect effects that this reform would have on electoral politics, individuals’ sense of liberty, and their overall sense that government works for them and not the other way around.

There are other reforms that could also lead to more demographically and ideologically diverse pools of candidates, and a representative and inclusive government that doesn’t involve forcing people to cast a ballot.

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