A healthy representative democracy depends on citizens exercising their right to vote. Yet here in the United States, usually 40 percent of eligible voters don’t vote during presidential elections, and typically 60 percent don’t vote in congressional midterm elections.
Should voting be mandatory?
In the 2011 Op-Ed essay “Telling Americans to Vote, or Else,” William A. Galston writes:
Jury duty is mandatory; why not voting? The idea seems vaguely un-American. Maybe so, but it’s neither unusual nor undemocratic. And it would ease the intense partisan polarization that weakens our capacity for self-government and public trust in our governing institutions.
Thirty-one countries have some form of mandatory voting, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. The list includes nine members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and two-thirds of the Latin American nations. More than half back up the legal requirement with an enforcement mechanism, while the rest are content to rely on the moral force of the law.
Despite the prevalence of mandatory voting in so many democracies, it’s easy to dismiss the practice as a form of statism that couldn’t work in America’s individualistic and libertarian political culture. But consider Australia, whose political culture is closer to that of the United States than that of any other English-speaking country. Alarmed by a decline in voter turnout to less than 60 percent in 1922, Australia adopted mandatory voting in 1924, backed by small fines (roughly the size of traffic tickets) for nonvoting, rising with repeated acts of nonparticipation. The law established permissible reasons for not voting, like illness and foreign travel, and allows citizens who faced fines for not voting to defend themselves.
The results were remarkable. In the 1925 election, the first held under the new law, turnout soared to 91 percent. In recent elections, it has hovered around 95 percent. The law also changed civic norms. Australians are more likely than before to see voting as an obligation. The negative side effects many feared did not materialize. For example, the percentage of ballots intentionally spoiled or completed randomly as acts of resistance remained on the order of 2 to 3 percent.
Students: Read the entire article, then tell us …
— Should voting be mandatory?
— Would legally requiring people to vote make for a healthier democracy? Or do you agree with Jason Brennan, an associate professor of ethics, economics and public policy at Georgetown University, who argues in this 2011 Room for Debate that higher turnout does not necessarily lead to higher quality government? He writes:
The median voter is incompetent at politics. The citizens who abstain are, on average, even more incompetent. If we force everyone to vote, the electorate will become even more irrational and misinformed. The result: not only will the worse candidate on the ballot get a better shot at winning, but the candidates who make it on the ballot in the first place will be worse.
Most people believe that more voting causes better government. This is an article of faith, not fact. Social scientists have shown that higher quality government tends to cause higher turnout. But higher turnout does not cause higher quality government.
— Is mandatory voting undemocratic? Is it unconstitutional?
— Instead of mandatory voting, would you support other ideas to increase turnout, such as tax breaks for voting or making Election Day a public holiday so workers get the day off, as readers suggested in these letters to the editor? Or would you recommend using automatic voter registration, so that when an eligible voter gets a driver’s license, he or she is automatically registered to vote?
Students 13 and older are invited to comment below. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.
Questions about issues in the news for students 13 and older.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word 'vote' as a formal indication of a choice between two or more candidates or courses of action, expressed typically through a ballot or show of hands. This word is not directed at any person between the ages of 18 and over, so it is fair to say that it is directed at any person of age. This word does not aim it at the free people of this nation, so it is a fair assumption to state that it is for everyone that walks around and those that are detained. So why is it that the law restrict a word that is meant for everyone? How is it fair that British citizens under the age of 18 are not allowed to vote or those convicted persons who are detained in correctional institutions are not either? Personally, I believe this is something that seriously needs to be dealt with.
Children or young adults are not allowed to vote. The reason that people give for this is because they do not know much about politics. This is not exactly true, kids get a hands-on experience with politics everyday. Kids strive to become popular by winning people over. In politics, you have to become popular and win people over if you want to get their vote. Is there not a similarity here? One other reason that goes towards why children are not allowed to vote is that they do not see the world like adults see it, they do not see the hidden truths that life hold. These naive souls may not see the world in which we do, but they see their own unique perspective on everything in life and is this bad? Children will lose this perspective once they become adults. So why not let children vote now while they still have this unique perspective on life? Besides, isn't that what people running for office want? A variety of unique voters? Politicians who are running for their positions say that they listen to what the public has to say" and "we care about what the people think". Not letting children vote is the equivalent of saying that children are not part of the...