Compulsory Voting: The Solution To All Of America’s Ills ?
There’s a proposal floating out there from a Brookings Institution scholar that suggests we consider making it mandatory for every American citizen to vote in every election:
William Galston thinks the key to less polarization in the electorate is compulsory voting. It’s the disaffected, the angry, who vote. The Howard Beales of the world. If everyone — including those in the less intense middle — voted, you would get fewer ideologues in office.
The Brookings Institution scholar is among those who are dismayed at the turnout in this country. Those in the wide middle of the spectrum are the ones who abstain from voting, and Galston thinks that’s not good. Get more people in the process by making it easier to vote through things like liberalized absentee voting.
It’s good for democracy, he says.
But there’s a catch to compulsory voting. You don’t vote, you pay a fine.
He is encouraged by the Australian system that that imposes a penalty — anywhere from $20 to $70 — on those who don’t vote.
In the study, Galston argues that bringing what he calls “less ideologically committed” voters to the polls would benefit the nation as a whole:
Near-universal voting raises the possibility that a bulge of casual voters, with little understanding of the issues and candidates, can muddy the waters by voting on non-substantive criteria, such as the order in which candidates’ names appear on the ballot. The inevitable presence of some such “donkey voters,” as they are called in Australia, does not appear to have badly marred the democratic process in that country.
Indeed, the civic benefits of higher turnouts appear to outweigh the “donkey” effect. Candidates for the Australian Parliament have gained an added incentive to appeal broadly beyond their partisan bases. One wonders whether members of Congress here in the United States, if subjected to wider suffrage, might also spend less time transfixed by symbolic issues that are primarily objects of partisan fascination, and more time coming to terms with the nation’s larger needs. At least campaigns continually tossing red meat to the party faithful might become a little less pervasive.
Honestly, I think Galston is being far too optimistic about the positive benefits of forcing people who don’t want to participate on Election Day to get to the polls or pay a fine.
For the most part, the non-voting population is made up of two broadly defined groups; the people who aren’t paying attention to the news and politics and don’t care about the election results, and the people who affirmatively choose not to participate in the election either for philosophical reasons, or because they don’t want to vote for any of the candidates on the ballot.
As to the first group, I’m not at all certain how the nation as a whole will benefit by giving electoral power to people who choose not to exercise it and don’t bother to educate themselves about the issues involved.
As to the second, forcing someone to cast a ballot when they affirmatively choose not to, or to cast a vote for someone they don’t want to vote for would seem to me to be a fairly clear violation of the First Amendment. Even adopting the Australian practice of allowing voters to cast a blank ballot seems insufficient, especially considering that Australia does not have the same Constitutional protections of free speech that we have in the United States.
Galston seems to think that forcing every American citizen to vote will somehow create a political consensus that will allow us to find solutions to the fiscal and structural problems that exist in Washington. Like most utopian solutions, though, it’s likely to create more problems than it solves.
H/T: Jason Pye