How Would Mandatory Voting Change U.S. Elections?

Steve Pope/Getty Images

Steve Pope/Getty Images

Voting in the U.S. is all about choice, but what if you didn’t have the choice whether or not to vote? At a town hall event in Cleveland, President Barack Obama expressed support for the idea of making voting in elections mandatory. You can see where he’s coming from when you consider that the 2014 midterm elections had the worst voter turnout in 72 years, with a national turnout of only 36.3%, but how would such a law change American elections?

“Other countries have mandatory voting,” Obama said. “It would be transformative if everybody voted — that would counteract money more than anything.”

Obama suggested this could help improve participation from the youth and minorities — demographics that he and his fellow Democrats would benefit from voting. “The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily toward immigrant groups and minorities,” Obama said. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.”

How does mandatory voting work in other countries?

Australia is one of the 11 countries that enforces mandatory voting laws — another 11 have such laws but don’t enforce them. First off, based on Australia and other countries with this law, making voting compulsory accomplishes what it aims to: It increases turnout. In a 2001 paper for Stanford, Simon Jackman found mandatory voting increases turnout by 7 to 17 percentage points.

Voter turnout in the nine elections after Australia made voting mandatory was about 94.6%, according to Vox. For the nine elections preceding the reform, the country had a 64.2% average turnout — still much higher than the U.S., we might note.

Results in Australia suggest that required voting experience helps the left-wing of the two major parties. Academic studies on the country’s electoral policies have shown that compulsory voting has given anywhere from a 5 to 10-point boost to the vote percentage of the left-leaning Australian Labor Party. Such a change is great reasoning for Obama to advocate for the measure, but would compulsory voting have the same effect in the U.S.?

How would it work in the U.S.?

Would the U.S.’s results be similar to that of other countries? As voter turnout has regularly disappointed, there have been various studies about how a compulsory voting law would change U.S. elections. There’s no concrete data, obviously, but multiple studies suggest that it may not change the overall outcome after all.

A 2001 study published by Cambridge University suggested that there wouldn’t be a big change in outcome. “Analyses of survey data show that no objectively achieved increase in turnout – including compulsory voting – would be a boon to progressive causes or Democratic candidates,” political scientists Benjamin Highton of UC-Davis and Raymond Wolfinger of UC-Berkeley wrote in the study. “Simply put, voters differ minimally from all citizens; outcomes would not change if everyone voted.”

The Washington Post also took a look at how a 100% turnout would have affected the 2012 elections. It found that the electoral map would have looked different — with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Obama winning different states — but the outcome would have been the same: Obama would have won by a similar margin.

Voter turnout is shockingly low in the U.S., so it’s easy to see where Obama’s suggestion is coming from. But, unfortunately for him and his party, it might not have the effect he thinks it would.

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