June 6, 2017
Jumbo Shrimp. Clearly Confused. Pretty Ugly. Forced Democracy?
American culture values freedom above all else. We hold dearly the freedom to speak, to worship, and to own private property. Perhaps the most important democratic freedom is our freedom to vote. As we currently interpret it, this implies a freedom not to vote. But should it?
According to the Harvard Law review, given how limited the franchise was until the twentieth century, and the low rates of voter turnout in recent decades, it is likely that no U.S. President has ever received a majority of the votes of the American adult population. The Atlantic reports that In November 2014, only 36 percent of eligible voters went to the polls—the lowest share in more than 70 years. This poses serious questions about the true legitimacy of a government when the vast majority of citizens have not elected it.
One remedy to this problem is compulsory voting, a policy that boosts turnout and underrepresented views, decreases the influence of money in politics, and bolsters civil discourse.
Compulsory voting raises voter turnout, which in turn leads us closer to the fundamentally American ideal of a representative democracy. In 2016 election, Donald Trump received only 27% of the potential electorate. The preferences of the other 73% of eligible voters were either for a different candidate or simply left unaccounted for due to lack of turnout. The end result is immense dissatisfaction with leaders, resentment, and political cynicism. Compulsory voting offers a solution: increased involvement.
According to the Brookings Institute in 2014, compulsory voting has empirically been proven to increase turnout. Over 20 countries have compulsory voting, representing 17% of developed countries worldwide. In Australia, for example, which has had compulsory voting in federal elections since 1924, eligible citizens must mark a ballot (they don’t have to choose a candidate) or pay a small fine of about $17. Voter turnout in the country is over 95 percent.
Because of the important ideal of self-governance in American political culture, increasing voter turnout is a benefit in its own right. An electorate that is more representative of the American population could in turn change electoral and policy outcomes in ways that better reflect aggregate preferences.
Compulsory voting decreases the need for money in politics. In the case of mandatory voting, continues the Harvard Law Review, political parties would not spend as much money on their get-out-the-vote efforts since high turnout would already be ensured and would be fairly inelastic. With this implicit limit on spending, politicians and parties would focus somewhat less on fundraising and be less beholden to donors.
As quoted in a New York Times article by Thomas L. Friedman “money in politics has become so pervasive that lawmakers have to spend most of their time raising it, selling their souls to those who have it or defending themselves from the smallest interest groups with deep pockets that can trump the national interest.”
Reducing the amount of money in politics is crucial to preserving our sacred ‘one person, one vote’ democracy.
Compulsory voting bolsters civil discourse which creates a positive feedback loop of increased participation. A compulsory voting regime would change the ways that candidates run their campaigns. Compulsory voting could lead to fewer attack ads because such ads generally function by disillusioning certain voting demographics. Once voter turnout increases, candidates would presumably reduce or eliminate the use of this tactic and focus on superior tactics.
In the current political system, only a few, homogeneous demographic groups vote. Political organizations have developed campaign messages and strategies that are successful at appealing to those voters. Compulsory voting would bring a new population into play, and would force political actors to make changes in their campaign methods in order to take these new voters into account.
Compulsory voting thus has the potential over time to alleviate some of the very causes of the current low levels of voter turnout. By triggering a shift in political discourse it would create a virtuous cycle that would alleviate the underlying causes of voter apathy. It can make politics less partisan and divisive, since currently the voting population is much more partisan than the electorate at large. If the entire population votes, there will be a more balanced representation of the political spectrum.
People who are brought into the democratic process will increasingly find that the government agenda addresses their interests, and this recognition could lead to a greater appreciation of the importance of democratic government. This may increase the utility people get from fulfilling their civic duty to vote, which would in turn lead more people to see their rational choice as voting, rather than staying at home on Election Day.