Even in such a bitter, unusual election, roughly half of America probably won’t vote tomorrow. In recent elections, turnout has ranged from about 50% to 60% of the voting-age population.
But there’s a simple change that the US could make to boost turnout dramatically, something that has worked in at least 26 other democracies.
We could make Americans vote.
President Barack Obama has endorsed the idea, and yet it has never taken hold in the US, for a variety of reasons. But many experts think it’s a good idea.
Mandatory voting works in Australia. Can it work here? And would serving sausages at the polls help? Listen to our first episode of BIQ, the podcast.
Benefits of mandatory voting
The two countries leading in voter turnout are Belgium and Turkey, according to Pew Research data. In their most recent elections, those countries saw 87% and 84% turnout, respectively. The last US presidential election saw just 55% of people rocking the vote.
Political scientists worry about this because older and wealthier Americans vote more often than anyone else. This means leaders’ policies are more likely to favour their interests over other groups. It’s called “class bias.”
Compulsory voting is a fairly old solution. Belgium first enacted its law in 1892, and Argentina in 1914, both as ways to keep the general population invested politically.
It doesn’t take much to get results. In Australia, where voting has been mandatory since 1924, the fine for not voting once is $20. After that, each fine is $50. If you never pay up you could lose your driver’s licence. In Belgium, after racking up penalties, chronic vote avoiders risk losing the ability to vote for 10 years.
In the US, compulsory voting has barely entered mainstream conversation. In May of last year, President Obama publicly endorsed compulsory voting for the first time, telling a crowd in Cleveland that “it would be transformative if everybody voted” specifically because of the class-bias effect.
“The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups,” Obama said. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.”
A handful of studies suggest Obama may be right.
One 2013 study found Australia’s turnout rate was like a lot of advanced democracies before it switched, in 1924, at which point the law forced working-class people — many of whom were otherwise disengaged from the political process — to learn about politics out of necessity.
That phenomenon has been validated in follow-up experiments using smaller-scale incentives: People tend to take an interest in things when there’s something specific in it for them. Some have even suggested paying people to vote, rather than fining the apathetic.
“When Australia passed compulsory voting, the Labour Party did better and you saw more progressive policies in line with what the working class was advocating for,” Anthony Fowler, the study’s author and a public-policy researcher at the University of Chicago, told Business Insider. “Compulsory voting would have large political consequences that would benefit the poor and working class.”
Other researchers have challenged the idea that voters start to lean left when voting is mandatory. Jason Brennan, Georgetown University professor and coauthor of “Compulsory Voting: For and Against,” said Australia may be an anomaly.
“The people who vote and the people who don’t vote are roughly the same in terms of their partisan preferences,” Brennan said in a recent interview with Governing.
Doug Chapin, an election expert at the University of Minnesota, disagreed. He said candidates would have an incentive to campaign to everyone, not just the wealthier, older people who disproportionately vote today.
The challenge of forcing Americans to vote
Fowler says it’s unlikely the US will adopt compulsory voting. For one, Republicans might fear an influx of progressive voters.
Revamping the entire election process, which varies across the country, would require big changes.
For example, Fowler speculates few Americans would be excited by the idea. “The idea that somebody might force me to vote might sound off-putting to a lot of American voters,” because Americans don’t often like being told what to do, he said. It goes against many Americans’ notion of individual liberty.
But compulsory voting doesn’t require citizens to cast a vote for specific candidates. People are still free to submit a blank or partial ballot.
Enforcement is another challenge. For instance, Chapin said Australia’s turnout rate of 79% could be even higher if the penalties were stiffer and the law better enforced. If the US, a much more populous country than Australia, fails to go after vote avoiders, the mandate’s effectiveness could wane.
“You certainly hate to reduce democracy to a cost-benefit analysis,” Chapin said, “but I think with something like this, whatever level of government is considering it is going to have to do that.”
Some states have already taken steps to make voting easier by design.
Earlier this year, Oregon became the first state to automatically register its residents to vote. If people don’t want to, they have to manually opt-out. Right now 28 other states are weighing similar laws.
Still, Chapin is sceptical that mandatory voting of any kind will make its way to the US, despite the evidence arguing in its favour. American government is slow-moving, even for small changes. If there were political will, overhauling the laws on voting — the bedrock of democracy — would take a long, long time.
“My grandmother used to say ‘never’ is a child’s word, so I’m hesitant to say it will never happen,” Chapin said. “But I think it’s highly unlikely.”
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