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.
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.
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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.
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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