Can Mandatory Voting Save American Politics?

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In at least 22 countries — from Australia to Brazil to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to North Korea — voting (in some form) in elections is compulsory, meaning that if citizens fail to cast a ballot, the  government will take punitive action. Australian non-voters are met with a letter from the electoral commission requesting a reason for their absenteeism.

Brazil and Peru ban non-voters from certain activities, including applying for passports. A few countries, like Belgium and Costa Rica, have mandatory voting laws on the books, but they are seldom, if ever, enforced. Meanwhile, countries like Ecuador excuse illiterate citizens, and Brazil does not require members of the military to vote.

Proponents of compulsory voting claim that the institution of democracy is far too important for citizens to fail to participate. That argument has resonance in the United States, where voter participation has averaged below 60%t in every single election since 1968 — even falling to 57.5% of eligible voters in the 2012 presidential election — while the public’s faith in congressional lawmakers remains sluggish at 18%, after hitting a low of 9% in November 2013, and President Barack Obama’s approval rating stands at a less-than-impressive 47%.

In the United States, the problem is not only that voter turnout is low but that it is socially biased, as well. Those Americans who fail to vote are typically already disadvantaged, and this means voting power is concentrated in the well-off demographic.

Low voter participation is not the only problem with the American democratic system. But the second issue — increasing political polarization — is closely related. Low voter participation means that only those citizens with strong ideological convictions go to the polls. And with shrinking numbers of participating voters, those with divergent and extreme philosophies create a partisan political climate in which little is accomplished legislatively. From this, a case for mandatory voting in America has been born.

The polarization of politics is one of the definitive characteristics of the 21st century. “With Democrats and Republicans more ideologically separated than ever before, compromises have become scarcer and more difficult to achieve, contributing to the current Congress’ inability to get much of consequence done,” said the Pew Research Center in a June 2014 study on polarization. Congressional stalemate, brought on by the vast ideological differences of its lawmakers, and the increasingly unpopular executive actions taken by Obama have led to poor government policy.

Driving the ideological differences straining the American legislature is the growing polarization of the American people. The share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, increasing from 10% to 21%. Now, the average Republican is more conservative than 94% of Democrats, up from 70% 20 years ago, while the median Democrat is more liberal than 92% of Republicans, a jump from 64%.

Increasingly polarized voters elect lawmakers who are unwilling to compromise with colleagues on the other end of the political spectrum. While 56% of respondents to a recent Pew survey said that they prefer politicians who express willingness to compromise, both “across-the-board conservatives and across-the-board liberals say the end result of compromise should be that their side gets more of what it wants.” 

For political candidates, this polarization means campaigns must be focused on maximizing the turnout of their voter base, while moderate voters become more disengaged. Pew Research Center data show that just 39% of voters with mixed ideological views cast ballots; 58% of those with consistently liberal opinions vote, and 78% with consistently conservative views cast their ballots. Those voters who consider themselves moderates are also less than half as likely as their more extreme peers to contact an official and one-third as likely to contribute to a political organization.

Reversing political polarization and political apathy is no easy task. In theory, it could be argued that a better education in civics could better prepare Americans for participating in the political process. But given that the U.S. education systems is besieged by a number of problems, it is unlikely a better civics education could be a practical solution to depolarize America.

Mandatory voting is more feasible. But again, there are problems: Namely, that Americans are generally not enthusiastic toward mandated activities, and for that reason, compulsory voting requirements are highly unlikely to be enacted in the United States. Among conservatives, the fear is that mandatory voting laws would create a complacent electorate. Some argue that greater political consensus — which is what high voter participation creates, ideally — is not a democratic value.

The bigger worry is the average voter is just too uninformed and therefore too incompetent to vote. And while those who support compulsory voting argue that democracy cannot be strong if the citizenship is weak (or disenfranchised), others claim that making voting a legal obligation is no way to strengthen American electorate. As PolicyMic’s JoEllen Redlingshafer wrote in late 2011, mandatory voting would only encourage people who would not normally vote (e.g., the uninterested and the uneducated) to participate, leading to “uninformed and randomized votes on important issues, like foreign policy and economics.”

The Australian example of mandatory voting does not tell a straightforward story. Voters do not actually have to cast a vote: They can mark their ballots for “none of the above.” But citizens are required to show up at the polls on Election Day. As a result, the country has a turnout of more than 90%. Some argue that during the 70 years the requirement has been law, Australians have come to see voting as a civic responsibility. “The system demonstrates a social expectation that at a minimum everyone needs to participate every few years and that’s a good thing,” University of Sydney politics professor Peter Chen told the BBC in 2013.

Compulsory voting in Australia is not universally appreciated. Libertarian columnist Jason Kent believes it is a political burden. “People have been sentenced to jail terms for not voting. It’s disgusting. It’s far from being democratic. We are not a democracy if we can’t vote democratically,” he told the BBC. “If voting was democratic, politicians would be beholden to the voters, they couldn’t hold a gun to our heads and force us to vote, they’d have to give us a good reason to vote. They’d have to inspire us.”

But what will it take for politicians to inspire Americans again?

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