The Big Idea: Mandatory Voting

In These Times Editors March 25, 2020

(Illustration by Terry LaBan)

man•da•to• ry vot•ing
noun

1. The require­ment that all who are eli­gi­ble vote

[Repub­li­cans] don’t want us to vote. They want to push vot­er ID laws that block Black and Lati­no vot­ers. … Not vot­ing is not a protest, it is a sur­ren­der.” —Kei­th Elli­son, Min­neso­ta Attor­ney Gen­er­al and for­mer House Rep.

Isn’t forc­ing peo­ple to vote kind of … undemocratic?

Well, poten­tial­ly. Some coun­tries enforce penal­ties for fail­ing to vote, such as a mon­e­tary fine or pass­port restric­tions. But done right, manda­to­ry vot­ing isn’t about drag­ging peo­ple to the polls against their wills. Its goal is to increase the legit­i­ma­cy of elec­tions and make sure everyone’s voice is heard. Cou­pled with poli­cies like a nation­al hol­i­day for Elec­tion Day, uni­ver­sal vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and robust resources for all elec­tion agen­cies — all of which would make vot­ing sim­pler and more acces­si­ble — manda­to­ry vot­ing could turn the tide against vot­er suppression.

Where does manda­to­ry vot­ing exist?

Bel­gium was the first democ­ra­cy to imple­ment manda­to­ry vot­ing — back in 1893 — and its authors saw the pol­i­cy as a way to empow­er the work­ing class. Twen­ty oth­er coun­tries — includ­ing Bolivia, Brazil and Aus­tralia, but not the U.S. — now have manda­to­ry vot­ing, with uni­form­ly high vot­er turnout. Manda­to­ry vot­ing became the law of the land down under in 1924, when vot­er turnout was below 50%. Today, it sits around 90%.

How does turnout in the Unit­ed States compare?

Not well! Turnout in U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tions hov­ers around 60% of eli­gi­ble vot­ers. In midterm elec­tions, it falls below 40%. A turnout this low calls the legit­i­ma­cy of elec­tions into ques­tion and ensures that only a por­tion of the elec­torate can make a major­i­ty” deci­sion for all of us.

What caus­es would get a boost from manda­to­ry voting?

It’s hard to say! In 2014, Pew report­ed that about half of non­vot­ers (51%) either iden­ti­fy as Democ­rats or lean Demo­c­ra­t­ic [while] just 30% affil­i­ate with the GOP or lean Repub­li­can.” Oth­er evi­dence sug­gests, despite this Demo­c­ra­t­ic-lean­ing among reluc­tant vot­ers, full vot­ing may not sig­nif­i­cant­ly change elec­tion out­comes. Regard­less, we do know that vot­er turnout is espe­cial­ly low among the poor — in Novem­ber 2014, for exam­ple, just 36% of eli­gi­ble vot­ers showed up, but for peo­ple mak­ing less than $10,000 a year, the num­ber fell to 25%. His­tor­i­cal research also reveals that mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties who get the vote wield it to enhance equal­i­ty. The expan­sion of suf­frage to women led to an increase in gov­ern­ment spend­ing, for exam­ple, and the abo­li­tion of lit­er­a­cy tests for vot­er reg­is­tra­tion shift­ed the dis­tri­b­u­tion of gov­ern­ment funds to areas with larg­er Black pop­u­la­tions. It’s pos­si­ble that a raft of poli­cies to pro­mote full par­tic­i­pa­tion could have a sim­i­lar impact.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For recent In These Times cov­er­age of vot­er supres­sion and vot­ing reform, see, A Win Against Vot­er Sup­pres­sion in the South, How Ranked Choice Vot­ing Could Make the 2020 Elec­tion More Demo­c­ra­t­ic, and Ranked Choice Vot­ing Is On a Roll

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