Should Voting Be Mandatory?

Voting is not optional in 23 countries. Here's why the United States should become the 24th

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Eleven weeks before Election Day we can’t know who will win the presidency. But we can know with near certainty that voter turnout will be abysmal and that the results will be not so much a mandate as a skewed sampling of about half the electorate.

Many reforms could increase turnout, from same-day registration to voting on weekends. But the most basic is also the most appropriate: making voting mandatory. Here’s why.

Mandatory voting would make elections truly valid. “Protecting the integrity of our elections” is the rationale Republicans give for the cynically restrictive voter ID laws they’ve enacted in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. But if we truly cared about the integrity of elections, we should ensure that they reflect the will of all eligible voters.

(MORE: How to Solve the Voter ID Debate)

Second, as William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues, it would temper the polarization of our politics. In today’s electorate, hardcore partisan believers are over-represented; independents and moderates are under-represented. If the full range of voters actually voted, our political leaders, who are exquisitely attuned followers, would go where the votes are: away from the extremes. And they would become more responsive to the younger, poorer and less educated Americans who don’t currently vote.

Third, mandatory voting would prompt more Americans to pay attention to the choices. Those of us who lament the decline of civic knowledge generally focus on the supply side of the equation: more civics education. A mandate would stimulate the demand side, motivating more voters to learn what they were voting on (just as a draft makes the drafted motivated to learn what they’d fight for).

There are many arguments against mandatory voting; each reflects a lack of faith in democracy itself. One says that increasing the number of uninformed voters will lead to worse policymaking. That presumes, however, that policymaking today sets a high-water mark of enlightenment. It also sets up a viciously antidemocratic circle: if you don’t vote you must be stupid and if you are stupid you mustn’t vote.

(MORE: Undecided? Election 2012 Is Up to You)

Another critique claims that requiring the vote devalues it, and that compelled voters will protest by voting carelessly. But in Australia, where voting became compulsory in 1924, that’s been a marginal issue. The existence of a mandate has made voting a meaningful shared national experience.

Some Republicans will oppose mandatory voting for the reason they now push voter IDs: to win. (Conventional wisdom says the more people who vote, the worse the GOP does). But if a tactic of disenfranchisement and electorate-amputation makes sense for the party (which is debatable), it is terrible for the country. As former director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orzsag has pointed out, we can’t know what the ultimate partisan impact would be. One day Republicans could benefit.

The most visceral critique is that mandating voting is just un-American. Yet jury duty, the draft, going to school, and taxpaying all have been compulsory without being called communist (OK, three out of four). At issue is what makes something American — and what makes liberty liberty. The Revolution and the framing of the Constitution were not about the right merely to be let alone or to do whatever one pleased. They were about our liberty to govern and represent ourselves. Core to that liberty is electing representatives and voting on public issues.

That is why the best reason for mandatory voting has nothing to do with today’s politics. It’s about redeeming the central promise of American citizenship. Generations marched, fought and died for the right to vote. The least we can do now is treat that right like a responsibility.

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139 comments
TheAlchemist
TheAlchemist

This whole problem with voter turnout arises from the fact that people do not have choices. Imagine if there was a candidate that reflected your convictions, you would vote for him and promote him passionately. You would have no reason not to.


What happens in the United States?


Several political candidates with very similar convictions from only two parties are handpicked by special interests and presented by the media constantly while any other candidates are completely ignored. What happened during last elections in 2012? Ron Paul was marginalized and third party candidates and debates were never even for 1 second presented by the mainstream media.


If there was an honest, fair platform to allow candidates to present themselves and their convictions, and the media gave plenty of equal coverage for each of these candidates, there would be a plethora of choices that would fit for almost every community or minority in this country, and every individual would have someone to vote for.

BillySonntag
BillySonntag

This article is a joke. Even if everything else goes correctly (the one who gets more real votes in the popular vote also gets more electoral votes, the electors vote for who their constituents wanted them to vote for etc.) it is still 100% meaningless. The reason is because anyone we are allowed to choose between whether it is a primary or the general election (especially in the general election) is guaranteed to be someone who is already so deep in the waistcoat pocket of this country's billionaires and big corporations that the "choice" we make on election day amounts to this: Hand puppet of the billionaire oligarchs with an "R" next to their name versus hand puppet of the billionaire oligarchs with a "D" next to their name. If you don't believe me just take an honest look at how Mr. Hope & Change President Obama turned out. From day one he has been nothing but Bush-Cheney Part 2. Millions of stupid 18-year-olds and young 20-somethings registered to vote so they could help elect the First Black President of the U.S. who they thought would actually help change this country for the better. Six + years into his presidency and what do we have to show for it? What better way to disillusion millions of young people than to have them think they're electing a genuine progressive only to find out he's Bush 2.0. 


The root of the problem is the private financing of election campaigns. Any candidate's campaign is so awash in the plutocrats' money that it is a foregone conclusion to all but the most naive that all they're participating in is a sordid quid-pro-quo process by which the billionaires fund the campaign of this or that candidate and when elected he makes sure to repay them with favors, tax breaks, sweetheart deals for well-connected corporations etc. Without public financing of campaigns (i.e. each candidate gets the same amount of tax dollars which have to be audited and accounted for) the whole idea of democracy in America is dead on arrival. 

weiqi.fox
weiqi.fox

I think voting shouldn't be mandatory... in Australia technically voting is mandatory but 1 in 5 Australians actually put in a blank vote or vote that doesn't count in one of the elections, per what I've read on it.

ChristopherAlanDriscoll
ChristopherAlanDriscoll

This is a terrible idea! The United States has already gone dangerously down the road to a police state under the Clinton, GW Bush and Obama regimes, now you suggest even more mandatory intrusion into our lives and even want to compel us to vote. This is a bridge too far. I wonder if you really want to push us into open rebellion, because this will do it. It's bad enough to have the government requiring us to buy private health insurance, now you want to compel us to vote in rigged elections that only allow two viable choices, both from capitalist political parties. I'll vote again when a genuine mass working class party is on the ballot, but not till then. I'm boycotting whether you pass this police-state law or not!

monillopis
monillopis

What about online voting? If some people don't vote because they can't make it to the polling places, then why can't they simply vote from their own homes.  Or better yet, why can't they vote from their own cell phones? If voting was to be mandatory, then they should also allow an option to vote for none of the above.

copperblade
copperblade

Mandatory voting is an unnecessary abridgment of my freedom.

Yoda of Borg
Yoda of Borg

Author and commenters both claim those who support voter ID would oppose mandatory voting.  This is of course ridiculous, as both are necessary for an honest democracy. (I say "those who support voter ID" because you don't have to be Republican to see voting in a US election is not a human right, but a US citizen's right.)

carlene7771
carlene7771

Some Republicans will oppose mandatory voting for the reason they now push voter IDs: to win. But as we speak you need a DL/valid ID to get into the DNC convention this week.

Will all the illegal immagrants be able to vote in Nov. after being given ammnesty?

gottavote.com  is petitioning for those living outside the US to vote, just use your last mailing address? They just don't get it!

Christina Honan
Christina Honan

Let's consider the consequences of mandatory voting in a country where "Here Comes Honey BooBoo" beat the Republication National Convention in ratings. 

scrag00
scrag00

Voting in this country can be summed up to "would you like lemon pie with higher taxes and government waste, or would you like peach pie with higher taxes and government waste".  The simple fact is its an "illusion" of choice we have in this country.  The really important issues like "how much money the government will steal from the taxpayer" and "which country we will start a war with" are going to be decided by people who are not elected or ever voted out of office.

I frankly wont waste my time voting for either one of the worthless candidates out there.  I have better things to do, like take a nap or play video games.

vamike80
vamike80

If you want mandatory voting then all voters should have to pay federal income tax.   Only when you have a dog in this fight or an investment in this country will you want to vote.  No need to force it now.  More government control is not needed.  What is the penalty if you don't?

harvey_conn
harvey_conn

If voting becomes mandatory than everyone eligible should be permanently marked with an eligibility tatoo upon citizenship (birth or legal via immigration). This shall be at the cost of, and recognized in all states, the federal government, so the poor and disadvantaged don't have to pay for a "Government photo ID". This will end the insanity of GOP voter fraud allegations. And as mentioned, if voting is required, than a NONE of the above option should be offered.

Whatnow05
Whatnow05

Yes, and then give us the day off like Australia. 

sixtymile
sixtymile

No way. Since we don't want to be told what to do about anything, anyone promoting this idea is sure to not get elected, which makes it a non-starter. Before we go to such extremes, just make it a national holiday and see where that gets us. How has this not happened yet? -- so obvious it should be easy.

Nicole Dittman
Nicole Dittman

I don't think voting should be manditory. Voting is a freedom not a requirement. If people don't want to come out and vote then that should be acceptable.

If voting were made manditory think of all the people that might actually come out to vote! I dont think we want all people to come out and vote. When obama was elected more black people then ever came out to vote and look where that got us. I am not saying blacks voting is a bad thing ist is not, but by making voting manditory we will get a lot more people that vote because they have to. And they might not pay any attention to the issues and beleifs of the person they are voting for.

silentcrown
silentcrown

I honestly think that it could do more harm for people to have to vote because mainly most people vote because they care about politics. and follow it through out and make the votes count with researching the person. but the people not voting dont care or don't follow politics at all.  and this could be harmful to the voting process. I Believe this because I don't really follow politics hardly at all so im not going to vote. 

- C.Carroll 

Heather Evans
Heather Evans

Still wondering why my comments were deleted. No profanity, just opinion. Great job encouraging people to participate in discussions, Time. I really wanted to like your magazine, but it seems like there's only a certain viewpoint you allow. Or maybe it's just a technical error. I suppose if I want to adequately offer my opinion it'll have to be on my blog, "in reference to" this article.

Jeffrey Geez Glavick
Jeffrey Geez Glavick

Make it law and blow off the electoral college, otherwise it will be same deal different year. Also a first term President has to start campaiging for his hopeful second term halfway through his first year, that needs to end also. It's a two year dog and pony show, 6 months is enough for that tacky show to be on stage.

franklinjpeabodyIII
franklinjpeabodyIII

It is not possible to outlaw apathy no matter how hard you try.  If elections were mandatory, the only candidates I would vote for would be the ones who promised to outlaw mandatory elections.

Piper Leah
Piper Leah

"Should Voting Be Mandatory?" Sure, why the hell not...We are told to do everything else...next will be what kind of toilet paper that you must buy..And if you don't buy it, IRS will tax you 1500.00 per year...

And if you don't vote, IRS will tax you 20k a year...But just remember, this is NOT a tax increase...

tma_sierrahills
tma_sierrahills

“'Protecting the integrity of our elections' is the rationale Republicans give for the cynically restrictive voter ID laws they’ve enacted in Pennsylvania and elsewhere."

How does some lefty this half-baked get a gig like this? Or did I just answer my own question? Simply requiring an ID to vote, like cashing a check in a grocery store, or doing 101 other things, is "cynically restrictive," but forcing someone to vote at gunpoint is what? Lovingly totalitarian? And how do you know whom to require to vote--particularly since any requirement would mean punishment for anyone not obeying--unless they have a valid ID? You're going to punish people for not voting when they are "undocumented" aliens, here on a tourist visa, etc? 

Pathetic.

Kipperd
Kipperd

Actually, voting in Australia is not compulsory. However, attendance at the polling plase and being struck off the eloctoral register is. You can write in Donald Duck or put a blank ballot in the box and satisfy the law (we call that a donkey vote). If you don't show up or vote absentee, you'll get a $50 dollar fine.

Curran Kemp
Curran Kemp

Are you kidding?  I choose not to vote because its my right.  Forcing people to vote doesn't make it any more valid.   I have a right to withhold my approval of  the politicians and the whole process.    What are going to do, throw people in prison for not voting?   If you are going to lie, cheat, and steal, why do you need my approval?  Why do you need my moral approval for such actions?   I withhold my consent to be part of the process where one either ruled by the socialist Democrats or the fascist Republicans.   Liberty does not require democracy.  Freedom and democracy are not the same thing.  Democracy is nothing more than a majority dictatorship.  Its time for America to remember its a Republic, and not a democracy!

sherinicole
sherinicole

If (a) you could convince people that their vote counts, and (b) you could educate the public about the politicians in an easy-to-understand and objective way, then voting would increase exponentially.  Instead, only people who care about politics go out of their way to vote and do research on the politicians.  Alternatively, if we were voting on the ISSUES instead of a face, I think people would be much more inclined to express their opinion.

ORChuck
ORChuck

In fact, I don't mind there being some barriers to voting, that voters have to make a bit of an effort to do it.  

sherinicole
sherinicole

If you could (a) explain to citizens how their vote actually counts and (b) educate citizens on politicians' campaigns in a way that is simple to understand, then voting would increase exponentially  WITHOUT making it mandatory.  Alternatively, we should change our voting ballots to reflect the issues, and then the politician who best embodies the winning policies shall win be default.  Everyone would vote if a ballot asked, "Should education receive an additional 5% of funding that would be taken from corrections?"  "Should marijuana be decriminalized throughout the state?"   YES or NO.  It's that simple.

guest
guest

Only in Russia and China.

BenVeritas
BenVeritas

Non-voting IS voting. How hard is that for anyone to believe. Get rid of the 2 party system and the morons it usually forces down our throats and we'll vote.

bzelbub
bzelbub

I don't think I could handle anymore ads on TV and more phone calls. Besides as long as the Electoral College is still viable, we still won't have unbiased/uncontested presidental elections. 

1diogenes
1diogenes

I've been saying the same thing for years.  And bring back the draft or mandatory public service.  We need a way to get our people to pay attention to the country again.   Instead, we have our version of the coliseum on tv (so-called reality shows) and in sports venues around the country.  People can live their whole lives distracted from what is really going on in the country and the world.  They can watch "news" programs that only reinforce their belief systems instead of unbiased reports.  News at networks are seen as entertainment by those very networks.  We need to get the US thinking, not just reacting. 

formerlyjamesm
formerlyjamesm

Will there be a public vote on the issue of mandatory voting, or only a congressional vote?  It sure won't pass a Republican majority Congress.  True democracy would be the death of the current Republican Party. 

Deathstalker187
Deathstalker187

The question is what would the penalty be for people who didn't vote to start with.. I mean what jail time give them a fine. So if it is a fine how much of a fine if it is jail time who pays for that? I think it is a good idea but what would the cost be?? Personally I would be ok with a fine that is something like 100 dollars or less maybe just 50 dollars if you don't vote. That being said some people are not able to vote such as some felons in certain states etc.

zaglossus
zaglossus

Good grief no. They'll vote themselves a welfare state.

Russian55
Russian55

This is an idea whose time came -- and went. 

The Right to vote is only a Free exercise when not COMPELLED.

Or are you opposed to liberty?

oneStarman
oneStarman

VOTING should be MANDATORY but one should ONLY be able to VOTE on an ISSUE after taking a TEST that demonstrates UNDERSTANDING of that Issue.  If we were Required to Watch an Internet Provided Summary of the Issues each Night - then we VOTED on these Issues - we would not NEED Representatives that ONLY Represent those who the Lobbyists PAY them to Represent.

We could have a TRUE DEMOCRACY and RULE OURSELVES.

BillySonntag
BillySonntag

@vamike80  Why on earth should someone making $12,000 a year working at McDonalds have to pay any income taxes? They're already being screwed out of most of the value of their labor every hour they're on the clock and are likely too poor thanks to their horrid wages to be able to adequately feed themselves. If a fast food worker has to pay taxes then it should amount to about one-one hundredth of one percent of their yearly income while we should return tax rates on the wealthy to what they were in the 1950s when Eisenhower was president. You know, when someone making $10 million/year had to pay about 85% of their income in taxes. Which should be done anyway, considering nobody needs millions of dollars to make it through 365 days anyway no matter how many kids you have.

141868
141868

I'm not marking up my body at the government's say so. 

Marcheline
Marcheline

@Whatnow05 Elections in Australia are held on Saturdays, but not everyone has the day off. Anyone who can't attend on voting day is able to do a postal or pre-poll vote beforehand.

Jardin J
Jardin J

You have got to be exceptionally brave/ignorant to post a comment like that.

You basically said that voting should be reserved for an educated elite and the average person "might not pay attention" and therefore adversely affect the results. Better to let the smart people make all the decisions.

I don't know if I have enough space to list all the reasons why that is so contrary to everything America stands for. And that comment about Obama and black voters is as misinformed as it is discriminatory.

Marcheline
Marcheline

@silentcrown In Australia, where the vote is mandatory, people tend to be reasonably well informed about politics because they know they have to vote. None of the effort US politicians currently have to make to entice people to vote is necessary in Australis and energy can go into informing the electorate about policy instead. There are still plenty of apathetic voters, but the number who choose not to register a valid vote once they're at the polling station is relatively low.

Marcheline
Marcheline

True. I'd add that a relatively small percentage vote informally and voter turnout is always well over 90%. So most people in Australia have no particular problem with voting being seen as a civic responsibility rather than an imposition from a 'Big Brother' government. You're right, though. I'm sure the logic is that once people have made the required effort to get to the polls, they'll most likely vote appropriately.

Epilachna
Epilachna

I was told where I live now that you get arrested if you don't show up for jury duty so I'm sure it would be nothing to issue a warrent/fine for not voting. And who would want to go through the trouble?

thepooraryan
thepooraryan

@Jardin J To be fair, this country was created by an educate elite. Since the beginning of time, the educated elite has ruled all others. America claims to be different, but America's government was created by well educated, wealthy, white, men. I'm not saying that it is okay to simply allow the elite to control everything and everyone, but is it fair to fight for those not unable but unwilling to fight for themselves? Should those who are not currently voting choose to defend their decisions or better yet, choose to vote, that's wonderful. However, a majority of the people who do not vote choose not to because they don't care or don't get time off, this reason or that. And they should be allowed to make that choice. Forcing people to vote WILL mean including people who choose not to do their research before the election. And stating that it will is not necessarily embracing the rule of the educated elite, it's just stating a point. There has been so much blood, sweat, and tears poured out over everyone having the right to vote that being forced to vote and choosing to not do your research is not only ridiculous but disrespectful. However, requiring everyone to vote is just as much if not more contrary to the ideals this country was created upon than saying that the voting should be left to the educated elite. 

Marcheline
Marcheline

@Epilachna In Australia the fine is set really low: $50. It's more about encouraging the expectation in people that voting is both a right and a civic responsibility. The vast majority just go along and vote because it's the society's expectation. We vote on a Saturday and can do a postal vote or pre-poll vote if that's not convenient.