The vote to vote: compulsory voting in the United States?

The following is my response to Danielle Messler’s Northeastern Political Science Review article ( that argues for compulsory voting in the United States.

The concept of compulsory voting in a democracy is somewhat of an oxymoron; compelling individuals to exercise their right to choose contradicts what many understand to be the central tenet of democracy: the right to choose. Yet, tenets and theories, abstract concepts such as “democracy” are slippery notions that evade comprehension. These abstractions, principles and the like are convenient tools for analogous argument; as we see here, Messler likens compulsory voting to jury duty, a task that the government already imposes upon the population. Her analysis focuses briefly on the similarities between voting and jury duty, she suggests that, “Jury duty is required to preserve the integrity of our judicial system” so what follows “simply” in her estimation, is that compulsory voting would have the same effect on the legislative and executive branches.

Never-mind the differences between jury duty and voting, the fact that voting is considered the most quintessential of democratic rights and results in the election of individuals who make state or national law and choose the individuals who will interpret it, versus jury duty which amounts to a bothersome duty that has little practical force on either the judicial or political system at large: less than 2% of civil cases are tried by juries and less than 10 percent of felonies and misdemeanors. Never mind that juries require mandatory attendance to decide the few cases that they do-the intent behind this imposition was the obvious realization that individuals would not, unless compelled, choose to interrupt their schedules to listen in on and decide cases-and that the voting process requires no such force to accomplish its goal. In short, to assert that these two impositions-mandatory voting and jury duty- would be the same is to ignore the obvious differences between the two and to confuse fantasy with reality.

To be fair, Messler does not, I think, believe that compelled voting is necessary in any literal sense, she is not ignoring two hundred years of elections and suggesting that elections cannot happen without governmental force. Regardless of how obvious this statement is, it is a critical distinction between the example she brought up, jury duty, and voting, that I think requires the explanation I gave earlier. This is because I think that the empirical consequences and public perception of policy-what can be measured of them at least- are more relevant than the slippery notions, abstract concepts, and principles I mentioned earlier. Her argument rests on these principles. After providing a description of voter turnout in the United States compared to other democracies and the institutions and factors that are responsible for this difference, she suggests that low voter turnout is inherently bad because of the distance between American rhetoric and reality, “Despite the reverence most Americans have for our democratic system, in a 2000 study conducted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), the United States ranked 138th out of 172 countries in eligible voter participation” and because of the impact of low voter turnout on polarization, “William Galston of the Brookings Institution suggests that our low turnout rate contributes to extreme polarization. He reasons that “hard-core partisans are more likely to dominate lower-turnout elections, while those who are less fervent about specific issues and less attached to political organizations tend not to participate at levels proportional to their share of the electorate,” in a recent article published in the New York Times.” To the first part, rhetoric and reality are often far apart, democratic ideals, constitutional provisions, etc are valuable commodities that politicians and judges manipulate to serve their relative ends on a daily basis. Should the United States discontinue its drones program because it does not comport with our democratic ideals? Should the Supreme Court interpret literally every provision of the Constitution to the effect that the Bill of Rights does not apply to the states? Judging and legislating require pragmatic interpretation that focuses first on what is and second on what ought to be in order to make sure that what ought to be comports with reality. The claim that we are saying one thing by suggesting that we have a great democracy and are doing another by choosing not to vote is not enough to justify forcing individuals to vote.

Messler’s second point, that low turnout results in increased polarization, is probably right. I say probably, because primaries- our only means to measure this phenomena- provide a misleading representation of polarization. Primaries result in increased polarization because the individuals who choose to vote in them are more partisan than general election voters; the correlation between political interest and partisanship is well documented. Thus, forced injection of an apathetic, ill informed half of the population into the voting process would likely-at least temporarily- dull polarization because individuals who care less about politics and know less about politics are comparably less partisan. However, I think this would be the most transient of phases, because incorporation of a new voting bloc- the apathetic voter who only votes because he must- will simply provide politicians with a new target audience. Questions as to how to convince this voter to vote rather than be penalized somehow will abound. Instead of “partisans”-who are at least relatively politically informed compared to the average voter- disproportionately controlling election outcomes- those who know little and care less will. Is this a better alternative?

Besides trying and failing to address what matters little-the gap between rhetoric and reality-and a more important problem-ideological polarization and its impact on voting and governance- compulsory voting would inflame popular passions. If choice is taken from the citizen- and compulsion replaces it- the general “tenet” of democratic choice will be threatened and the citizen will perceive this policy as a threat to a freedom they believed they had. Even if compulsory voting brought about the benefits that Messler briefly suggests it would, it would not supercede the cost of a reduction of person choice, which Americans are particularly sensitive to as evidenced by our relatively meager social system (compared to the European countries you mention).

Turnout rates are likely low in the United States compared to other democracies due to wealth inequality and its implications on access to education and other resources, as well as the 26th Amendment which lowered the voting age to 18; this group has become less participatory since the framing of this amendment (and it was not especially active then). These circumstances are unique to America; no other democracy is as large, heterogeneous (both ethnically and socioeconomically), and politically ambivalent. Compulsory voting would ignore systemic concerns and do nothing to alleviate the problems that lead to low participation rates, and impose on a population that is historically wary of governmental action a new tax or imposition in a time of particular economic and political apprehension.Thus, I think compelling a large swath of the population by force to vote (around 50%) would instigate anger and fear, and likely compound rather than alleviate partisanship. Put simply, it is bad, bad policy.


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