President Obama spoke in Cleveland two weeks ago and mentioned his support of mandatory (or compulsory) voting in the United States.
The president said it would “completely transform the political map in this country,” and argued mandatory voting would help remove big money from politics, encourage the young, working class and disenfranchised citizens to vote and increase voting turnout numbers.
Many news sources reported 57.5 percent of the American public voted in the 2012 presidential election. That’s not such a bad number – at least the majority of registered voters showed up at the polls.
The number dips to an abysmal 37 percent for the 2014 midterm elections. Although midterm elections don’t have the same turnout as presidential elections, it still means a little more than one-third of registered took control of the governmental wheel, so to speak.
In contrast to the low voter turnout in the US, Australia constantly boasts high voter turnouts. The Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance reported Australia had a registered voter turnout between 93 and 95 percent since 1946.
However, between 78 and 91 percent of the voting age population historically shows up at the polls, so the voting turnout numbers are often debated. Still, anywhere between 78 and 95 percent of voters at the polls is a great win for democracy, and the high participation numbers are most likely caused by Australia’s mandatory voting system, which fines unregistered voters and citizens who don’t vote about $20.
Admittedly, Australia is one of a minority of 23 countries with mandatory voting laws, and only one of 10 which enforces those laws, according to the BBC.
Other counties that have mandatory voting laws include Costa Rica, Egypt, Lebanon, Argentina and Belgium.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume a supermajority of Americans would rather take the pains to vote than get fined $20, and voting numbers would stretch into 80 percent range for all elections.
Also for the sake of argument, ballots include a “none of the above” option, so voters who truly have no opinion have a voice and can bypass the fine.The question now is, is it healthy for a democracy to have mandatory voting laws? After all, it is a bit of a paradox – democratic philosophy relies on the freedom of choice, which includes the freedom to not choose, or in this case, the freedom to not vote.
Some arguments against mandatory voting say the average American is incompetent at following political races and their votes for presidents and congressmen are based on sensationalized headlines and misinformation.
If we were to force the uninformed masses to vote, the argument goes, the political system would become more backwards than it already is. Hence, only the informed should participate in the political system and the ignorant should choose to remove themselves from the game.
Ilya Somin of the Washington Post wrote an opinion article about Obama’s speech, refuting the president’s argument that compulsory voting would help get big money out of politics.
Somin argues, “relatively ignorant voters are more likely to be influenced by simplistic 30 second ads than relatively well-informed ones,” and more money will pour into the political system to sway the uninformed.
This may be so, and as a journalist, I’ve seen how people can be led astray by misinformation from both sides of the political spectrum.
However, I think a mandatory voting system gives many disenfranchised citizens a chance to voice their opinion. This would not only far outweigh the cons of ignorant voters participating in the political arena, but it also resolves the paradox of mandatory voting in a democracy.
Elections are run by multi-million dollar PACs and laws are passed by deep-pocketed lobbyists. Money runs the American political system now, not the voters. So maybe it’s time for the government to help the people take back their voice.
In his speech, Obama said, “The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups… There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls. We should want to get them into the polls.”
Political studies show that many young people, such as myself, vote for more liberally. The same goes for the working and poor classes, as well as immigrant groups and minorities. It may be a political boon for the Democratic party if a mandatory voting system was installed, but not all conservatives vote during elections either. And not all liberals and conservatives are straight-ticket voters.
Really, no one knows which party, if either, would benefit the most from a mandatory voting system.
Rohan Wenn, a spokesperson for the non-partisan political advocacy group Get Up! was quoted in a BBC article about Australian mandatory voting. “If you look at the international experience, in non-compulsory voting systems,” he said, “the people who don’t vote are the poor and disenfranchised and those are exactly the people we think should be voting.”
Everyone should have the power to vote, but in recent history the voices of the tired, the poor and the huddled masses have eroded, and the rich and affluent have built walls and towers to consolidate their control.
Maybe the answer isn’t mandatory voting. Maybe we should make presidential and midterm elections a national holiday, so more people can take the time to vote. If that option is too expensive, then let’s try voting on the weekend.
Maybe laws should be passed to ensure political ads convey truthful and accurate information and money spent on political campaigns should have a cap limit and be made 100 percent transparent. Any of these solutions could be a step towards equality and a more effective government.
But the fact remains that an accessible voting system with a high participation rate will only help a democracy, not hinder it.
And of course, if one party does benefit from a silent majority now compelled to vote, well, that’s democracy for you.
Reach Ray Still at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-825-2555 ext. 5058. Follow him on Twitter @rayscottstill for more news, pictures and local events.