Last week, President Obama briefly discussed the political effects of mandatory voting in American elections. His comments elicited a firestorm of commentary from long-time advocates who believe compulsory voting will solve a variety of political problems, including voter turnout, the influence of money, polarization, and political education. Over twenty countries already require mandatory voting, which mandates that citizens cast a ballot or face a punishment, usually a fine. Some American experts see mandatory voting as the “political salvation” that our nation desperately needs.
Few would disagree that a politically-educated, fully-involved citizenry that turned out and voted one hundred percent of the time is the ideal for a constitutional republic such as ours. The American system relies on its citizens to select leaders to make decisions within the responsibilities granted in the constitutional framework. This ideal citizenry would be better equipped to select the ablest leaders fully representing the entire breadth of the population.
Sadly, but truthfully, American citizens are often far from this image of an ideal, politically educated citizen. A Cato Institute report describes the situation grimly: “Political ignorance in America is deep and widespread…political knowledge levels have increased very little over the last fifty to sixty years, even as educational attainment has risen enormously.” Voter turnout is abysmal, below 40% during midterms and about 60% in presidential election years. Local election turnout rates are even worse.
Our current political environment has Obama and others calling for mandatory voting, but is that the right (and just) answer? Not at all. Although citizens should educate themselves politically and participate in the political process, mandatory voting infringes on citizens’ personal freedoms. Further, mandatory voting will not necessarily solve the problems in the American political environment.
First and foremost, a federal or state requirement for citizens to vote would be an unconstitutional, unjust violation of a citizen’s right to free speech. The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, from government infringement:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Fortunately, the people’s right to free speech has been protected from state action since Gitlow v. New York in 1925. But how does “freedom of speech” apply to mandatory voting? In truth, elections are not subject to the same “strict scrutiny” standards applied to political speech, due in part to the Supreme Court’s deference to state and local governments to modernize, secure, and fairly run elections. However, the laws in question (recently voter ID laws) apply only to those citizens wishing to participate. A law mandating voting would not be for the purpose of regulating an election like voter registration or Voter ID requirements, but rather would be forcing a citizen to do something they might not otherwise want to do.
Whether out of political apathy or protest, non-voting is a form of political expression that deserves free speech protection, even if the action is unwise. Suppose a citizen chose not to vote because they lived in a gerrymandered district with limited political competition, and there were no candidates they believed deserving of a vote. (For the record, I believe that citizen should still go vote, but am pointing out that there are reasons why they might not.) Their failure to vote signals disapproval or disgust with the political structure, and thus represents political speech. A comparison might be to the “freedom of expression” protection established by the Supreme Court in the famous “flag-burning” decision in Texas v. Johnson. In this case, the state could not compel a citizen to respect the national flag; surely, the state cannot compel a person to participate in election they want no part in.
Even if mandatory voting could be justified constitutionally, it would not solve several issues with our political process. Requiring voter participation would mean an increased number of uninformed voters, as even those without knowledge or interest in the political process would be forced to participate. For instance, barely a third of Americans could identify all three federal government branches. Some argue that voter knowledge would actually increase if citizens were forced to vote, but research disagrees: “[the] latest political research suggests that while [mandatory voting] may raise turnout it has no effect on political knowledge or interest.”
As for reducing the impact of money in politics, the reason for the President’s suggestion in the first place, mandatory voting would probably not be too effective. Even more could be spent on campaign advertising, targeting low-information voters with catchphrases, negative advertising, and little substance. The sources of this funding would be unlikely to change. A Los Angeles Times op-ed explains how the effect of “big money” President Obama opposes (and used in his election campaigns) could be magnified.
Certain practical objections should be raised as well. Absolute enforcement could prove to be unwise. Serious illness, travel, protest, or other “legitimate” excuse for missing the vote would certainly prove controversial. Loopholes or exceptions could be exploited to avoid paying the “reverse” poll tax. Another concern would be the primaries. In some states and districts, the primaries are the most competitive elections in the cycle. Requiring primary votes would almost certainly be illegal, but failure to do so without significant electoral reform might undermine any change mandatory voting might start.
Voting in each election is essential in a constitutional republic. The constitutional republic has safeguards to preserve individual liberty from the tyranny of the many (for example, the Bill of Rights). But these safeguards do not guarantee good leaders or good policy. The citizens must choose leaders and hold them accountable; this is best accomplished through informed voting in elections.
While Americans should oppose a legal requirement to vote, they should be committed to becoming educated, dedicated voters in every election. It seems that I have been encouraging my fellow citizens not to vote. That could not be further from my wishes. Americans should participate in the democratic process at all phases – from voting on Election Day to calling their legislators about important bills. Our participation maximizes our liberty, legitimizes democratic government, and ensures a responsive and responsible government at all levels.
Ultimately, our nation will be better served by the self-improvement of private citizens than it will by requiring all citizens to vote. I believe it is important to educate oneself on the political issues of the day and to form opinions based on values and facts, regardless of political ideology or party identification. We should be encouraging our neighbors to do the same, and must work with them to build a stronger nation. We don’t need the government to mandate voting, but we do need to take responsibility as citizens.