Despite being members of the modern world’s oldest continuous democracy, Americans aren’t great at turning up to vote. The U.S. has among the lowest voter turnout of developed democratic nations. The reasons are complex and ingrained — from institutionalized voter suppression to individual apathy and distrust in the government.
And now, with the 2020 presidential election only five months away, the coronavirus pandemic has added an extraordinary new hurdle on the path to participatory citizenship.
While here in the U.S. we have come to see disengagement as a birthright and disenfranchisement a feature of the system, in a number of other countries, voting is more than a right: It’s required. Some experts believe that making voting mandatory — penalizing those who don’t, or rewarding those who do — could get more U.S. voters casting ballots. And that could bring our democracy closer to being truly representative.
“Compulsory voting is the most effective way to boost voter turnout,” said Stanford political scientist Emilee Chapman.
American voter turnout ranks 26th out of 32 highly developed democracies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which focuses on economic and trade relations between member nations. Voting is typically highest in presidential election years — in 2016, 61% of Americans voted — and dips lower in the midterms. The 2014 midterm elections saw the worst voter turnout in more than seven decades, with a national average of 36.3% turnout by eligible voters.
Four years later, the 2018 midterms had the highest turnout in 40 years, yet only a bare majority — 53% — of eligible Americans voted. That jump was fueled in part by youth turnout, which increased dramatically from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2018, a crucial development that allowed Democrats to take back control of the House of Representatives.
“If you want people to care about the political system, it surely helps to show that the political system cares about them and won’t make decisions without hearing from every citizen.”
The reasons for low voter turnout are socially complex as well as structural. The obstacles to registering and voting are much higher here than they are in other countries. For instance, America is one of the few democracies in the world that doesn’t put the federal government in charge of registering its citizens to vote, leaving it up to individuals to register and putting the burden of maintaining accurate voter rolls on local officials. Nearly one-third of eligible voters in the U.S. are not registered to vote.
And even the eligible voters who are registered may still be kept from voting because of voting restrictions; 34 states have laws requiring or requesting voters present a government ID or other approved identification to vote. Voter ID laws often create barriers to voting for both minorities and the poor, since state-issued IDs can be relatively expensive and difficult to obtain. Other factors, like a scarcity of polling places, can make voting more difficult and time-consuming, a situation that disproportionately affects minority voters.
Further, unlike other countries, U.S. elections are often administered by state or local elected partisan officials, who have been accused of putting their thumbs on the scales for their own or their party’s political benefit. In 2018, the eventual winner of the Georgia governor’s race, Republican Brian Kemp, was able to oversee and administer his own election as the secretary of state, prompting accusations of voter suppression.
An Electoral College that put two losers of the popular vote into the Oval Office in the last five elections and Senate seat apportionment that gives all states equal representation, regardless of population, both contribute to a feeling in the U.S. that individual votes don’t really matter. And it all adds up to Americans’ general cynicism about voting and the sense on both sides of the political spectrum that the system is rigged.
While not a panacea, compulsory voting in the United States could help break through the cynicism and apathy surrounding elections and disrupt the longstanding patterns of exclusion that so often dominate American politics.
Twenty-two countries mandate that citizens vote, including five European nations and a high concentration of countries in Central and South America (though only half actively enforce their compulsory voting laws).
Belgium, which leads the world in voter participation, first mandated voting in 1893 as a way to combat the practice of vote-buying (bribing voters to vote a certain way). Since then, voting has become a patriotic tradition in the country, and the act of going to the polling place is a communal activity that’s part of the social fabric.
There is good evidence that making voting mandatory gets more people to the polls. Chile had compulsory voting and then eliminated it in 2012. The next year voter turnout plummeted to 47%, compared to 87% in 2010.
Australia, which has one of the highest turnout rates in the world, has compulsory voting. Experts say it also helps minimize political polarization since it requires candidates to appeal not just to their bases, but to the greater majority of voters. In Australia, that effect is bolstered by the addition of ranked voting, the practice of picking second and third choices for office.
Proponents of compulsory voting argue that penalties for not voting further the public good by increasing voter turnout, especially in marginalized communities where people might not otherwise have a voice. It could help address the problem that voting in America skews older, whiter and wealthier, while young people, minorities and the poor vote at much lower rates.
The form the penalties take matters. Belgium rarely enforces the 10 euro ($11) fines for first-time offenders who refuse to vote. Repeat holdouts, however, could potentially be hit with the punishment of being struck from the voter rolls and prohibited from voting for 10 years. Although this penalty may sound rather minor, not being on the voter rolls prohibits a citizen from being appointed to a job in the civil government or from being promoted if you already have a government job — a rather high price to pay for the roughly 1 in 6 Belgians who work for the government.
In Brazil, citizens who refuse to vote are not only banned from public-sector work but can’t obtain a passport or receive a loan from a public bank. Unfortunately, studies have shown that Brazil’s approach can actually increase inequality, since denying passports and loans is more likely to incentivize middle- and upper-class citizens to vote rather than poorer ones.
“Although compulsory voting on a national level may be a long-shot, the main argument for it remains pretty simple: Compulsory voting makes representative democracy more representative.”
Chapman thinks compulsory voting could be “an important tool for combating political apathy” in the United States. Proponents of compulsory voting argue that requiring underrepresented groups to come out and vote would force politicians to take their concerns seriously, which in turn makes people feel empowered and gives them hope their voices will be heard. “If you want people to care about the political system, it surely helps to show that the political system cares about them and won’t make decisions without hearing from every citizen,” she said.
Some 70% of nonvoters in the U.S. are under the age of 50, and roughly one-third are under 30 years old. Low voter turnout among younger people provides little incentive for politicians to support policies that benefit them, which in turn disincentivizes those voters even further. For example, according to polls, 80% of 18- to 29-year-olds feel that climate change is a “major threat” to human survival. However, the issue isn’t a top concern to more conservative high-turnout voters, so even minor action on climate change continues to face entrenched political opposition in Washington, year after year.
It stands to reason that if younger people voted at the same level as older citizens, issues like student loan debt, gun control and climate change would get more serious attention and political traction at both the state and national levels.
In February, California Assemblyman Marc Levine (D) introduced a bill that would make voting mandatory in every election, with unspecified civil penalties for noncompliance.
But even supporters of compulsory voting feel that Levine’s approach has a serious flaw. Although the bill mandates voting, the law only applies to registered voters and is not accompanied by a measure requiring automatic or universal registration.
“This particular bill is not something I would support because of the lack of mandatory registration,” said Chapman. “The concern is that you create a deterrent to people registering to vote. You’re going to have a much harder time convincing people to take that first step to register to vote if it then locks them in and takes away their choice to vote or not.”
Punitive measures for noncompliance are the most common ways of enforcing compulsory voting, but some advocates think an incentive approach has a much better chance of succeeding in the United States.
Some suggest small payments or tax credits to encourage citizens, especially young and first-time voters, to register and vote. The goal of such payments would be to inculcate people into a lifelong habit of voting.
“You could give somebody a $50 tax credit if they do vote, but don’t fine them for not voting,” suggested Harvard Law School professor and elections expert Nicholas Stephanopoulos. “You might not get quite as high compliance that way, but I think it’d be a lot more palatable and it would also basically negate any potential legal challenge.”
There have been some small-scale experiments on incentivizing voting in the United States. Arizona held a ballot initiative in 2006 that would have awarded a random voter a million dollars; the measure failed to pass. In 2014, the Los Angeles City Council considered a similar monetary reward scheme to boost turnout in local elections, but ultimately, it passed on the idea. In 2015, the Philadelphia Citizen, a media company, used a lottery tactic to juice municipal voting, awarding $10,000 to a random voter. Analysis after the election showed that the incentive boosted turnout by 5% among those who knew about it.
The coronavirus pandemic creates a uniquely challenging new barrier to voting at a crucial moment. Concerns about contagion prompted 16 states to cancel or postpone their primary elections. With the possibility it will be unsafe to go to the polls for the presidential election in November, there has been a lot of talk about expanding people’s ability to vote by mail. Indeed, the combination of voting by mail and compulsory voting could go a long way toward boosting participation in U.S. elections.
By eliminating polling places, voting by mail automatically gets rid of in-person voter ID requirements and a lack of access to polling places that currently dissuade citizens from voting. It would also address other forms of suppression, like voter intimidation, as well the problem of provisional ballots, which are often rejected — all possible reasons why President Donald Trump and other Republicans are so opposed to it.
Trump has recently amplified and repeated the shopworn and bogus Republican talking point that mail-in voting causes rampant voter fraud, earning himself a fact check warning on Twitter. But he’s revealed that what really scares him about it is that it works, leading to “levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
In addition to voting by mail and compulsory voting, there are other, more easily achievable reforms to the system that could help restore Americans’ faith in government and increase voter turnout. Many countries with higher turnout hold elections on weekends or make Election Day a holiday — which makes voting, especially for the working poor, much easier.
“You can have elections occur on Saturday or Sunday when most people aren’t working,” said Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They do that in many countries, it’s not very costly, and you’d have a much higher turnout.”
Universal registration, the norm around the world, would also greatly even the playing field and boost turnout. Short of that, allowing same-day registration, also known as Election Day registration, has been estimated to boost turnout by 3 to 7 percentage points.
Although compulsory voting on a national level may be a long-shot, the main argument for it remains pretty simple: Compulsory voting makes representative democracy more representative.
“All of us are going to be subject to the policies that the government makes,” said Stephanopoulos. “Compulsory voting ensures that elected officials and laws reflect all of our views, not just the potentially non-representative fraction of voters who happen to go to the polls.”
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