Suppress the Vote? Or Require It?

An interesting response to recent, transparent efforts in several states to suppress the votes of “those people” has been the suggestion that America make voting mandatory. Many other democratic countries–notably Australia–require people to vote and fine those who don’t.  (Actually, as I understand it, what is mandatory is appearance at the polls. There is apparently something akin to a “none of the above” option that will fulfill the legal obligation.)

If America ever did go to a “vote or pay a fine” system–something that we might do at about the same time pigs fly over a frozen hell–I’d lobby for a vote-by-mail system like the one in Washington State.

Be that as it may, what are the pros and cons–real and theoretical– of a mandatory voting law?

Arguments for such a system generally include the following: increased participation would ensure that election results mirror the preferences of the entire population, not just those sufficiently motivated to express those preferences at the polls. At least some percentage of the currently disengaged would take more interest in government and politics–knowing that they would have to cast a ballot, at least some Americans would make an effort to know something about the people on that ballot.

Arguably, universal turnout would require candidates to craft more inclusive messages, since targeting an ideological sliver would no longer be the path to victory. (That targeting is one reason for our currently polarized politics.) Candidates and parties would also save a lot of money and effort currently spent on GOTV (get out the vote) efforts. The role of money in politics would thus abate somewhat.

So what are the cons, the arguments against mandatory voting?

Requiring people to vote would assure the participation of low-interest, arguably uninformed people, “alphabet voters” who would simply pull a lever in order to avoid a fine. (You can lead a voter to the polls, but you can’t force him to think.) A fine would fall most heavily on the poor and disadvantaged–the very people who have difficulty getting to the polls in our current system.

The most compelling argument against mandating voting is a First Amendment one: the Supreme Court has recognized that, just as government cannot censor what Americans say, the government cannot compel Americans to speak. If voting is compelled speech, if it is tantamount to an endorsement our electoral system, then requiring people to cast a ballot would be unconstitutional. (Proponents respond to this argument by pointing out that jury duty is mandatory, and that participation on a jury can be seen as an endorsement of the justice system.)

At least one scholar has suggested that–rather than making voting mandatory (which we are highly unlikely to do)–we should work to make elections more competitive, because turnout increases when voters have meaningful choices.

Gerrymandering/redistricting reform anyone?


  1. When both choices violate our civil rights, when both choices are wrong; we really haven’t been given a choice. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this. Amendments XV and XIX give us the right to vote; Congress has the power to enforce these rights, nothing is said about forcing this right on us. Is Gerrymandering a right upheld by the Constitution or Amendments – either Federal or state level? Do other cities have the problem with this purchasing power of political parties that Indianapolis seems to have – repeatedly? At least they aren’t spouting Bible verses to uphold these actions. Mandatory voting is as much against our civil rights as suppressing the vote. Just as controlling women’s health care choices and refusing to let a selected group of people marry is against our civil rights. We have real problems in this country, people, no need to invent more.

  2. As I understand it, the Supreme Court has consistently stayed out of the gerrymandering issue where the issues a purely ones concerning party imbalances and not tied with things like racial discrimination, calling it a “political question” reserved for the legislative branch of government. That doesn’t seem likely to change any time in the near future, but there was also a time before the Court enunciated a “one person, one vote” doctrine in an area it previously avoided for the same reason.

  3. Voter suppression in any disguise is just plain wrong. Keep the vote as the freedom that it is…and don’t forget to count each one! Including the ones that are surreptitiously dropped in the trash or discarded in other ways.

  4. Simple solution: There is a tax of the greater of $100 or 50% of your gross income. The tax is waived if you vote.

    Of course this doesn’t address the low income voter problem.

    Other suggestions: Require candidates to answer certain fact questions under oath. Require legislators who speak at hearings or on the floor to do so under oath. If it’s First Amendment speech to give money to a politician, make it a crime (bribery?) for a politician to accept money for anyone above certain levels or who is intelligible to vote for that candidate.

    Just thinking out loud.

  5. Idle thoughts on a Saturday evening when my weather radio is constantly blaring alarms and computer-generated statements of dangerous storms which are now crossing the Mississippi River:

    C-SPAN3 is at a Lincoln Forum at the Library of Congress. The speaker is showing actual Lincoln letters in the late President’s incredibly beautiful handwriting. Here we are, 150 years later, actually beginning to drop cursive writing from the school curriculum in states all over. Sad. Really sad.

    From the Associated Press: Marist College found that Americans considered “whatever” to be the most annoying word or phrase for a fifth straight year. Thirty-eight percent of adults polled voted for “whatever,” followed by “like” at 22 percent and “you know” at 18 percent. [No telling where “like, you know” would fall in the voting!] Sad. Really sad.

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