Getting Out The Vote

Several years ago,  my husband and I took a week-long cruise on a small boat that accommodated only eleven passengers. One of those eleven, as it happened, was a retired professor of public administration from Australia, and we had several fascinating exchanges about policy differences between our two countries.

One of those differences involved elections.

In Australia, the law requires  that every citizen vote. I initially recoiled at that suggestion; surely, people too disinterested to go to the polls  unless required to do so would cast uninformed ballots…but the more I thought about  it, the more Australia’s system appealed to me.

Many democratic countries evidently require people to vote, and fine those who don’t.  (Actually, as I understand it, what is mandatory is appearance at the polls. In many systems, there is apparently something akin to a “none of the above” option that will fulfill the legal obligation.)

Requiring citizens to vote would help 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 might make an effort to know something about the people on that ballot and (gasp!) even the system within which they aspire to operate.

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

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 check a box in order to avoid a fine. (You can lead a voter to the polls, but you can’t force him to think.) Even a token fine would fall most heavily on the poor and disadvantaged–the very people who have difficulty getting to the polls in our current system.

At least one scholar has suggested that–rather than making voting mandatory (which America will do when pigs fly)–we should work to make elections more competitive, because turnout increases when voters have meaningful choices. Gerrymandering currently makes that solution untenable.

Gerrymandering is also a huge disincentive to voting; when you are convinced your vote won’t count, you are understandably less likely to make the effort. And because Republicans have been far more successful in gerrymandering (not that Democrats don’t try–they just aren’t nearly as good at it), the people who are least likely to vote are the people most likely to vote Democratic.

A recent study of turnout should be filed under “read it and weep.”

A new study from BYU and the University of Virginia analyzed 400 million voter records from elections in 2014 and 2016 and found that minority citizens, young people, and those who support the Democratic Party are much less likely to vote than whites, older citizens, and Republican Party supporters. Moreover, those in the former groups were also more likely to live in areas where their neighbors are less likely to vote.

“We’re finding that the circumstances of other citizens who live around you plays an important role in voter turnout,” said Dr. Michael Barber, BYU professor of political science and co-author of the study. “Much of the country is segregated—especially by race and partisanship. Minorities are more likely to live around other minorities who are also less likely to vote. The same is true of voters of both parties. These patterns can create a situation that results in persistent patterns of lower turnout in certain communities for a variety of reasons.”

The study found that, in 2016, White citizens voted at a rate of between 9 and 15 percentage points higher than Black citizens, Asian citizens, and Hispanic citizens. In 2014, the gaps were even higher, with Whites voting at a rate 9 to 18 percentage points higher than minority groups. There were similar gaps in political party turnout, with Republicans  more likely to vote than Democrats.

Unsurprising but depressing, the data also confirmed that the voting rate of citizens 60 years old or older was roughly 40 percentage points higher than that of citizens 30 years old or younger.

If those demographic gaps in turnout narrowed–or, with mandatory voting, disappeared– a significant number of districts that have been gerrymandered by partisans would no longer be safe–after all, the people drawing district lines must depend upon previous turnout data. They have no way of knowing the political preferences of the people who didn’t bother to vote.

Increased turnout could save American democracy.


  1. Even if pigs were to fly, I still don’t think America would do it. The GOP would blitz the airways with a scream of “tyranny.”

    So maybe you could do what we do in Canada: educate people via commercials and mailers on how and where to vote, make adding yourself to the voter roll trivial (a checkbox on our tax forms), have lots of polling places (we use elementary schools a lot since every neighbourhood has one), etc. Voting here typically takes less than 30 minutes, and most often that includes the time to walk to and from the school. Then you could add vote-by-mail, early voting, etc.

    But the GOP strategy has long been just the opposite: the fewer people that vote, the better for the GOP. And given the results you’ve just presented, it seems they’ve been right. It certainly explains their intense and thorough attack on voting.

  2. We’re not a democracy. We’re not even a democratic republic. One could argue successfully with evidence that we never were. “We the people…” was a great marketing ploy.

    We reached a democratic republic before FDR was elected, and while he was president, but the oligarchy has incrementally dismantled all those gains. The oligarchs almost lost the country, so they ensured that the people could never reach that level of control again.

    Reagan’s administration was the final nail in the coffin. As Piketty has pointed out, we are now in our second Gilded Age of being controlled by Robber Barons with surveillance and a large military.

    I’m all for making it mandatory to vote. Link it to your driver’s license through the BMV. If you don’t vote, your license is revoked. We could add a few other responsibilities besides voting if you’d like. 😉

    However, voting is irrelevant until we eliminate the oligarchic structure that controls society. We also need a 100% independent free press funded by the people for the people. I believe that structure is NPR, but it has been co-opted by oligarchs with the help of the captive politicians who defunded it.

    By the way, Australia also has a dis-, misinformation problem named Rupert Murdoch.

  3. This reminds me of something the the odious Lindsay Graham said regarding efforts to increase voting turnout: “If we let everyone vote we’ll never win another election.”

    If only that were so.

  4. Apparently Trump is gathering millions in donations since this government, by way of FBI, has confiscated evidence from his home, the contents haven’t been identified but Trump has come up with lies to cover why additional evidence is in his possession. This seems to me to be like the brainwashing by Republicans that Democrats are coming for their guns; Trump’s donors probably believe if he is back in the White House he will protect them from FBI raids. But; I can’t set my brain in a mode to think like Trump supporters so am only guessing. I don’t believe I am guessing when I say the fact of Trump returning to OUR White House is coming closer nd closer as the January 6th and other Trump criminal investigations increase with doubts increasing because he always slides through like you-know-what through the proverbial goose. Do Democratic voters feel defeated before election day is here?

    We used to be bombarded with political TV commercials and buried under mailers for weeks before election days. I get occasional mailers from the same 1 or 2 candidates, don’t watch much local TV, rely on CNN and MSNBC for political information with an occasional flip to Fox News to see if they are covering important events. I get dozens of E-mails daily with the same surveys and petitions. We are seeing as much of Trump’s ugly face now due to the investigations as we did when he was in office; free campaign ad for him before he has officially declared he is running.

    I’m glad I am old, really old!

  5. JoAnn…you and I have the same thought. This is a very good time to be old.

    I’ve mentioned Australia’s ”all citizens vote” more than once, only to receive a sneering “WELL! They can’t make ME vote if I don’t want to.”

    How DARE they mandate citizenship? Something millions of people around the world would cheerfully die for–and Americans won’t require it.


  6. Because the election system no longer represents We the People is exactly why we need a revolution. I hope we have a peaceful revolution soon. Otherwise, the choice will be an autocracy with oligarchy, or bloody revolution resulting in some sort of authoritarian government.

    But people are comfortable and apathetic.

    (Am I being realistic or darkly pessimistic?)

  7. I would say the real problem (one of the real problems?) with mandatory voting would be getting enough polling locations/drop off locations/allowing mail in ballots/etc.

    I suspect, even in a world of flying pigs, our Republican friends would not allow any more ways/locations to vote – at least to the undesirables (read urban). Not too long ago didn’t Indiana try/succeed in removing voting locations from most populous Marion County and added locations to more (R) voting Hendricks County? I would expect that kind of trend to still be true even with universally required participation.

  8. Over here in Heidi land, political mailers are sent to every home at least 30 days before a referendum is held. This is by law. You get information packets of each party, representatives and the issues being voted on. You need something like 100k signatures to get a referendum on a ballot. Participation is about 70% and there are mail in ballots in addition to polling places.

    I know that since I vote for AZ as it was our last address, I got my eballot 30 days before the primary and returned it within 48 hours. It took a couple of emails to set up, copy my driver’s license and signature verification but that was easy as we have a printer at home with a scanner to create the file to send back. That might not be easy for non-techies. Otherwise mail in voting should be law in all states like Oregon has done for a decade. Plus, they should be able to count them before the election so that results can be given after the polls close.

  9. I can still vote for POTUS at the embassy, but I probably will not bother and that will break a lifelong voting record. Frankly I’ve given up on the US.

  10. I learn something new every day!
    Required voting sounds like a fine idea. It could come with the often sought after, but, of course, never
    instituted, voting holiday. But, the consequences for not voting would fall, disproportionately, on the more
    disadvantaged, especially when governors like Abbott can have polling places in poorer neighborhoods closed.
    Pam’s point about Trump receiving so much free publicity, is, sadly, reminiscent of what happened in the run-up
    to 2016. He’d say something imbecilic and the press would jump on it .
    It is appalling, and I try not to focus on it, but the fact that so many people can’t seem to learn that when he opens
    his mouth, he is lying.
    Speaking of “odious Lindsay Graham,” someone asked, the other day, why do these people keep winning, and the
    obvious answer is gerrymandering. MTG is still in the running, and here comes the Alaskan fried-brain flounder!
    SHEESH is right!

  11. I wish we did have mandatory voting, but I also wish that we follow Great Britain and not allow political commercials on the telly. Let’s have informative debates instead. Of course, I also wish for an unlimited supply of apple pie and ice cream.

  12. Has anyone here noticed how Chaney has booted trump off the news cycle?
    Ah the silence is beautiful.
    I wish it could be forever.
    But then npr would have nothing else to talk about.

  13. While in normal times suggestions like mandatory voting would be thoroughly discussed and vetted both by the public and among politicians, these are not those times. To me, any discussions relative to voting today have to be limited to two areas, campaign financing and federal oversight of national elections. Which of those would have the biggest impact on our future? Campaign financing, by far.

    If you consider today’s system as a process: make promises for donations, accumulate a war chest, spend on political advertising, repeat endlessly, it’s easy to wonder why we put up with all of that risky business and it results in only one thing, political advertising. Now consider the impact over your whole life of all of the political advertising you have been exposed to. I have to conclude for myself it has all been a waste of money. Nothing of value has resulted from the entire process and, instead, untold dysfunction from politicians beholden to wealthy donors.

    It is entirely dysfunctional and until we get out from under it, it will result in what we have already seen from it. Ted Cruz. Marjorie Taylor Green. Ron Johnson. Donald Trump. Mike Pence. The list is endless.

    What are we thinking to not jump on that like we were killing snakes?

  14. Let’s start with the facts first: “Australia, Luxembourg , Uruguay , Costa Rica, and Belgium are the only nations having compulsory voting.”

  15. Research suggests the best way to get a “sometimes” voter to vote is an encouraging message from someone they know or know of (someone like them that they respect). MUCH more effective than mass “spray and pray” messaging.

  16. SAD – if the blog were about The Former and his followers there would be 25+ comments.

  17. Several states have rank ordered voting. This tends to produce more competitive races and result in more moderate candidates, I suspect it breaks down in gerrymandered districts as well.

    One thing you said that bothered me on the topic of gerrymandering; “not that Democrats don’t try–they just aren’t nearly as good at it”. I suspect Gerrymandering is much more effective when you are willing to use lies and deception to create the perception of scorched earth culture war issues.

  18. Requiring folks to vote isn’t the panacea. If one were to scrutinize Australian politics more closely,one would find the country moving much more to the right. Btw,wrt Australia,anyone remember the year 1975?

  19. Seeing loads of really bad comments here trying to convince us that voting doesn’t matter in USA. They’re wrong. Always vote. Here’s why:

    In 2000, only 537 votes in Florida
    Bush got 2 SCOTUS
    2 wars
    Tax cuts for wealthy.

    In 2016, just 80000 votes in 3 states
    Trump got 3 SCOTUS
    More tax cuts for wealthy.

    SCOTUS would be 8-1 lib if “Did Not Vote” & so-called “Independents” had voted for Democrats.

    Please register to vote and check your voter registration (especially your address)

    “I’m not the first to notice this.
    The leftists didn’t like Humphrey, so we got Nixon.
    They didn’t like Carter, so we got Reagan.
    They didn’t like Gore. We got GWB.
    They didn’t like Hillary, and they gave us Trump.
    They need to grow up.”

    If you don’t vote then someone else’s vote counts twice.
    Get to your local county Democratic party headquarters and start helping elect Democrats.
    Poll greeting alone (during early voting and on election day) has proven to move the needle.
    Do it.
    Don’t listen to the privileged “voting doesn’t matter” crowd. If voting didn’t matter they wouldn’t be trying to keep you from voting or convince you it doesn’t matter.

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