Re-Branding the Ballot Box: The Case for Mandatory Voting
When Russell Brand becomes a seer of political wisdom, we know it is probably time to worry. Yet, in admitting to presenter Jeremy Paxman in 2013 that he had never cast a ballot, the comedian touched upon the deep-seated trend of political apathy. Indeed, as a non-voter, he is certainly not alone. Participation in the last presidential election hovered around the 56% mark, whilst voting among youth has been steadily declining since 1972.
Justifying his refusal to vote, Brand explains, “I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class." Yet the solution to a negligent governing class is not a wholesale withdrawal from the system, but instead full-fledged commitment to it. Rather than accepting voter disengagement as a pitiful symptom of a failing democracy, we should do the opposite.
We should make voting mandatory.
Though seemingly radical, compulsory voting already exists in 22 countries, including Australia, Belgium, and Brazil. In these systems, citizens can face small penalties﹣such as fines or temporary disenfranchisement﹣if they do not vote, and, as such, are forced to engage politically. The results are stark: since voting was made mandatory in Australia in 1924, voter turnout has never dropped below 91% in a federal election.
But surely forcing those who have chosen to retreat from the system to vote is an excessively intrusive measure? Indeed, as Brand points out, the politically disillusioned “don’t feel like they want to engage with the current political system, because they see that it doesn’t work for them.” Yet, it is the very people who are sidelined by the current system who need to vote the most. And compulsory voting is the easiest way to get them to do it.
As the recent midterm elections showed, minorities are consistently kept away from the polls through active voter suppression, as well as by logistical complications such as distance from polling stations or work commitments. Instituting mandatory voting would prevent eligible voters from being kept away from the polls, and as such, ensure that minority voices are reflected in representative assemblies. Of course, there are other ways to increase civic participation, yet studies have shown that introducing a small penalty which outweighs the incentives of abstention is most effective in raising minority engagement to the same levels as those of mainstream voters. That is to say, by forcing underrepresented citizens to vote, we ensure that their needs and desires are considered by those creating the policies which directly affect them.
So, what does mandatory voting mean in real terms? One effect, as demonstrated in Australia, has been to create a more centrist politics, as political parties must run on platforms which appeal to the majority rather than relatively small, ideologically homogeneous groups. In traditional elections, politicians mobilize their base alone. Iin mandatory voting systems, however, politicians must offer policies which appeal to the population at large.
Under voluntary voting systems, only those citizens who are sufficiently roused by political rhetoric will make the trip to the ballot box. Perhaps this explains why the White House is currently occupied by a president whom only one quarter of Americans elected. Thus, our current system leaves us vulnerable to populist demagogues who rely on firing-up fringe groups to sway elections. Mandatory voting, on the other hand, tempers political extremism by forcing those in the center to contribute their voices.
Yet, some would argue that forcing unwilling citizens to express their political opinion will only lead to uneducated, or worse, random, voting. But this argument falsely presupposes that voluntary voters are all politically knowledgeable and vote in the common good. In fact－in reframing voting as an act of civic duty－mandatory voting does a better job of creating civically-engaged citizens. Indeed, this seems to have been the case down under, where 87% of Australians would still vote even if it became voluntary. Thus, by transforming voting culture, citizens are encouraged to view elections as a personal responsibility, which, as studies have shown, leads to increased political knowledgeability.
Establishing mandatory voting might prove to be particularly prickly in the US, where the First Amendment protects both free speech and the freedom to silence. That is to say, forcing an individual to express their opinions is considered to be as unconstitutional as suppressing them. Yet, compulsory voting need not undermine a citizen’s right to silence, since voters can choose to abstain or spoil their ballot. Thus, whether you support a particular candidate’s policies or not, voting becomes an act of respect for democratic principles.
It would be naive to think that mandatory voting is a panacea for all the ills of modern democracy. Yet, it would be even more naive to think, as Russell Brand suggests, that disenfranchising oneself is any sort of solution. Mandatory voting offers an answer to the problems of minority voter suppression and the overrepresentation of political extremes. And, more radically, it transforms the act of casting a ballot from a right into a duty. The promise of democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people. As such, the duty to vote must fall upon all of the people