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?