Commentary — October 10, 2012, 8:46 am

The Democratic Argument for Compulsory Voting

In an essay selected for the Readings section of our October issue, Victoria Bassetti writes about the lack of constitutional protection for voting—an important issue right now, as some states have passed voter-identification laws that civil-rights groups believe could discourage millions of people from voting in the upcoming general election. Since 2003, Republican lawmakers in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and a handful of other states have passed laws that require voters to present photo identification at polling stations to cast a ballot, with the stated aim of preventing voter-impersonation fraud, and the actual aim of placing obstacles to voting in front of poor people and minorities, who happen to traditionally support Democrats.

Even without such efforts, turnout will be abysmally low, as it always is. Presidential-election voting peaked in the twentieth century in 1960, when nearly two-thirds of eligible voters came out to the polls, and reached its nadir in 1996, when just over half did. The most recent two presidential elections were better, with each turning out over 60 percent, but the most recent midterm elections managed only 40. Given that it has become a struggle to get half of Americans to the polls, it’s quite incredible that anyone would do anything to discourage voting.

This has become a particular problem for Democrats, who, if they were wise, would be targeting nonvoters with more than just get-out-the-vote drives. In August, a USA Today/Suffolk University poll showed that unregistered voters, if they had to choose, would pick Obama over Romney at a rate of nearly two to one, while registered voters who said they weren’t sure if they would cast a ballot also heavily favored Obama. The pool of 90 to 95 million nonvoters represent a significant missed opportunity for Democrats, one they might someday capitalize on by pushing to aggressively reform voting laws around the country, a strategic goal that happens to coincide with increased participation in the democratic process. Allowing same-day registration and a variety of acceptable identifications at the voting booths helped Minnesota achieve the highest turnout of any state in the 2008 presidential election, at 77 percent, while Democrats in California have passed laws that allow for online registration in the upcoming election, resulting in promising early numbers. But to really push people to the polls would require much more.

The most obvious and effective reform would be a compulsory voting system. While such a move would invoke the rage of tea partiers and those who see compulsory anything as inimical to the American notion of freedom, the concept isn’t foreign to U.S. politics. In the seventeenth century, several American colonies required eligible voters to participate in elections. (In Virginia, the fine for not voting was at one point two hundred pounds of tobacco, while Georgia wrote into its first constitution a fine of five pounds for anyone who absented himself from an election without valid reason.) More recently, many delegates to Massachusetts 1917 constitutional convention supported amending the state’s constitution to permit compulsory voting. Turnout had been backsliding in the United States from its highest historic participation rates in the late nineteenth century, and was heading for its all-time low in the 1920 presidential elections. One of the Massachusetts delegates argued that “when these men find it obligatory on them to go and vote they are going to give this question thought, and they will study it over, and they will talk it over in the market-places and in the grocery stores and with the folks at home, and the result is they get more light and are better able to vote.” Another complained that 28 percent of registered voters had not voted in state elections that year, and that primaries regularly drew less than one-quarter of voters—turnouts that would be nothing short of miraculous today. The trends were troubling enough for drafters of the constitution to add the amendment permitting the government to require voting, though no law has yet been passed to test it.

Other countries have shown that mandatory voting works. In 1924, Australia legislated a mandatory-voting system after its turnout dipped below 60 percent in its most recent federal elections. Its next ones, in 1925, saw the participation rate rise to 91 percent; and it has never dipped below that figure since. Opinion polls consistently show that the majority of Australians support obligatory voting. Similar systems in Italy and Belgium, which has had a compulsory vote since the nineteenth century, regularly produce turnouts of over 90 percent. Notably, the few who do refuse to vote in these countries face relatively mild punishments. Nonvoting Australians are fined up to about $50. Nonvoting Italians can encounter a few extra bureaucratic hurdles when trying to register for state services.

It would be in the Democrats’ interest to push in that direction—and at relatively low cost, as reform would first have to happen slowly on a state level, where, if other systems are any example, the success and popularity of compulsory voting would serve as a model that could spread through the country. The biggest challenges would most likely be legal ones—because, as Bassetti points out, the lack of a federal constitutional right to vote makes standards flexible and essentially subject to the whims of state courts.

Of course, Democrats legislating voters to the polls strictly for their benefit would be no less cynical than Republican voter-registration efforts, nor earlier efforts to remove property requirements, for example, to ensure that more white men could vote, thus preserving slavery. But a compulsory vote would represent the expansion of electoral engagement; the Democrats would potentially reap political gain while advocating for a just and proven form of democratic process. That they aren’t taking the initiative is their own loss.

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