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The Case for Compulsory Voting: A Plea for Democratic Legitimacy

Last updated on March 26, 2021

Poll booths remained open during the 2020 presidential elections. Photo Credit: Spectrum News NY1

“I’d bet my life on Michael Phelps taking the Gold again”.

“I swear on my life: there isn’t a single city that outdoes New York City”.

“I’m dead serious. This is the best ice cream I have ever tasted … trust me on my life bro”.

In day to day conversations featuring American slang, we wager our lives as a hyperbole to express that we are “all in.” We proclaim, without reservations, that we are committed and dedicated to whatever our stance may be. But, when are we going to go “all in” for the heart of America, and for the construct that really does require our dedication and full backing? Michael Phelps will probably reign as a champion, whether America “bets their lives” on him or not. But democracy? It won’t thrive unless each one of us goes “all in” on it.

Everyone needs to start voting like their life depends on it, because in reality, it wouldn’t even be hyperbolic to say that it does.

One problem is that even in an idealized version of the American populace, wherein every citizen is enthusiastic to be civically engaged, not every citizen would actually get to vote. From the beginning of its introduction to our early government, voting was exclusionary and influential in reinforcing both a social and political hierarchy.

Only the white, Christian, wealthy, men (an archetype that transcends into present-day elitism) were granted the right to vote. And not until decades later, was suffrage finally extended to women, to anyone who wasn’t Christian, and to anyone who wasn’t white.

But even now that growing into our government has made voting more widespread, the very notion that in “a democracy” voting could be so limited, set a precedent for the unequal representation that the American system of voting would proceed to facilitate.

In our current state of exposure to intricate technology and advanced forms of communication, ensuring that everyone can cast a ballot should theoretically be easy. But even if accessibility is a simple promise to keep, relative to the multitude of ways one could go about voting… it feels impossible to accomplish, relative to the even greater multitude of ways  that voters are being suppressed. This restriction to exercising one’s right to vote disguises itself in manipulative policies and structural barriers.

Those who make the decisions and impose them, supposedly on our behalf, have found it convenient and fitting for their interests, to take the right to vote away from certain Americans. And, they’ve become increasingly comfortable with enforcing the notion that not only do some votes matter more than others, but that only some are needed for democracy. This is a dangerous line of reasoning… and it’s one that we would be able to combat by enacting compulsory voting.

Considering the overcrowded polling booths, voter purging, campaign targeting,  and refusal to use mail in ballots or virtual voting (just to name a few of the suppressive circumstances that exist in the present), compulsory voting could not be of more necessity. In practice, “A compulsory voting law would incentivize legislatures to lower  the procedural hurdles [and] […] curb the culture of voter suppression that has historically barred less powerful groups from the political system” (Che).

But this isn’t just hypothesized, it’s proven by assessing the effects of compulsory voting’s implementation in other democratic countries. For instance, Belgium, a country which introduced compulsory voting, attained the position of having the #1 highest voter turnout (World Population Review). Similarly,  in Australia, “voluntary voting prior to 1924 accounted between 47% turnout of voters. Following the introduction of compulsory federal voting in 1924, this figure jumped to between 91% and 96%” (Rychter).

Undoubtedly, the impact of higher voter turnout is immense; it is transformative in creating a more stable government that is responsive towards the people as a whole.  Harvard Law’s analysis of how voting affects stability concludes that, “voting helps sustain a peaceful democratic government”, because although, “citizens less conscious of voting as a desirable form of participation are more likely to resort to violence, and unrest, […] higher turnout gives more citizens a sense of effective participation, and this safeguards stability over the long-term.”

Further, it is significant to note that higher turnout undermines those who benefit off of socioeconomically biased constructs.The National Bureau of Economic Research finds, “if more citizens are forced to vote, their power increases relative to those of the pressure groups. Special interest groups would no longer be able to take advantage of the rationally disinterested vote” (NBER). This re-affirms the notion that in a democracy, money ought not have a voice that can speak over or for the people. And, that compulsory voting, would therefore be contributing to fundamentally protecting democracy.

The central concern with compulsory voting lies in the worry that it would undermine individual liberties. In specific, proponents of this view advocate that mandatory voting might detract from our ability to use abstention and nonvoting as a form of protest. The concern is validated by the notion that a vote is expressive and that actively choosing not to is a means to display discontent against a government.

However, I’d argue that just the opposite is true: compulsory voting systems  protect individual freedoms far more than voluntary voting systems do. We can understand the relationship between compulsory voting and individual freedoms under three main facets of analysis.

First, we must recognize the limitations and counterproductivity of completely unfettered freedom and how a lack of government intervention and structure actually guarantees a lack of freedom. Rousseau declares that “men must be forced to be free” and that freedom doesn’t exist without government and structured guidance (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In this regard, compulsory voting would actually be protecting people’s freedom and individual liberties because, through increasing accessibility, it is giving them the platform to finally be heard and vote in policies that they believe in.

Second, democracies are built off of compromise between what people will sacrifice for the common good and the individual liberties that they seek protection over. There is no moral distinction between mandatory jury duty or compulsory taxes and compulsory voting. Thus, especially when compulsory voting is evidently beneficial for democracy, why should it be condemned? It stands to reason that it falls under the same umbrella as anything the government mandates; it isn’t a violation of liberties, rather it is the requirement for the populace to uphold their end of the social contract.

Third, because most countries with compulsory voting systems have the option to select ‘none of the above’ (such as Belgium and Greece), compulsory voting actually elevates, not silences, the voices of those who are protesting or are discontent with the government. “Abstainers stay at home for different reasons. As ‘silence is at best ambiguous’, actively casting a protest vote in a system with compulsory voting is easier to interpret. While low turnout indicates that there is something wrong with democracy, it cannot pinpoint what the exact problem is”. In a voluntary voting system, abstention does a disservice to the purpose of protest, whereas compulsory voting helps a government recognize how to create change to address the worries of citizens.

The ability to vote, or (for far too many people) the inability to vote, has been weaponized as a mechanism of oppression and discrimination. But, it is a weapon that statistically loses its power in compulsory voting systems. Leveling out the political “playing field” with compulsory voting means replacing the culture of exclusion and inequality with a culture of civic engagement and political participation.

In countries like Australia, the nation recognizes election days as voting holidays and everyone has a BBQ to celebrate voting. I don’t mean to claim that this will necessarily happen in every country, but what I do claim will occur with compulsory voting, is the development of voting as a social norm that will be carried down to future generations.

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