The Ideas Lab:Compulsory Voting in the USA?

Compulsory voting is something that makes many Americans uncomfortable. The thing is I just can’t shake it. Democracy is NOT democracy without the demos. Apathy is a terrible thing and the US political scene is a dystopian miss mash that falls well short of what We the People deserve.

Do you cure apathy at the barrel of a gun? Well this is an example of the hyperbole found in the oppositions camp and of course the answer is NO. There is rarely if ever a sincere response emanated from the one on the wrong end of a gun. Of course I in no way advocate using force to compel people to do their civic duty. I do however support removing people from the active voting rolls and requiring a fee be paid before they can be reentered on the team. Before that occurs though I believe Americans should be engaged intellectually as to what the country loses when its citizens fail to engage in governing themselves.

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.-Plato

In America we are a team,at least we’re supposed to be. Although the various squads may wear different color jerseys the ultimate goal is that the whole is served. One of the things compulsory voting and increased turnout does is provide a truer mandate on the issues in an election. The Presidential races have shown the need for this. A President who barely gets 50% of  50% of the voters is not a leader of a united country and clearly has no real mandate for anything he campaigned on.


A  by county breakdown showing the Red/Blue “team” breakdown of the 2012 US Presidential Election. Obama 51.1% Romney 47.2% of 54.9% of voting age population.

The above facts can certainly be taken a couple of ways. First off one could take the “people who care did their part and the rest can piss off” road. This is the general consensus that if one doesn’t register and go to the polls that’s your choice. There is also a school of thought that puts forth that this is a good thing. The last thing we need is low information voters flooding the polls and pulling a lever in Pavlovian fashion crowd who judging by the press trend red.

The second road,the one less taken as it were, is that looking at the numbers how can anyone say there is a clear mandate from the People. This path doesn’t have a definite color going for it and perhaps that is part of the problem.

People make a point that they have a Constitutional right not to vote. That it is protected free speech to express oneself by not voting.

“The fact that a non symbolic act is the product of deeply held personal belief — even if the actor would like it to convey his deeply held personal belief — does not transform action into First Amendment speech.” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

The above comes from a ruling aimed at a politician but I think the spirit is true. The action of voting is not speech. I would also say that given the fact that in the USA a compulsory vote would need to include a “none of the above” or “No confidence” etc type of choice provided one isn’t being forced to vote for something they don’t support or believe in. This is an important concession that an active democracy must accept.

The above image is exactly the imagery anti-compulsory voting folks want seen. The thought of single candidate elections like Zimbabwe’s Mugabe or Syria’s Assad securing 80-90 + % of the vote making democracy a banana republic mockery. Two points make this nonsense.

First is that neither Syria or Zimbabwe have compulsory voting. Second is that in the USA where incumbents rule we often see single candidate races. Candidates running unopposed get nothing but a positive since the turnout stats are put on the trash heap. Think about an unopposed incumbent getting a true 50%+ result stating “none of the above”. I find that awesome!

A US citizen has a right to vote but with the exception of a handful of federal rules aimed at equality the states ultimately allow a citizen to vote and have the power to prohibit a citizen from voting.This is all the rage right now with a focus on two areas. The less glamorized one is the prohibition of former felons voting. This is a mockery of democracy. Do your time but you’re never really allowed back into society,yeah recidivism has a full menu folks. The headliner is of course voter ID laws sprouting up everywhere. The Left hates them and the Right loves them. The focus of this effort is often on the wrong point but there it is. To degree the fraud case is overblown but it is equally undeniable that the acquisition of identification in America is hardly Mission Impossible. The sanctity and security of the vote is paramount! In my world you get some ID and you vote!

Based on a look at the globe one could crunch the numbers and decide if compulsory votingCompulsory-voting_5 is a good thing. The majority of the world regardless of the level of their democracy do not have compulsory voting. The places that do have a variety of terms that manages it in practice. None of the countries that have it are without opposition to it and none of them fail to have excellent turnout. Clearly the two best examples,or at least the most palatable for the discussion are Australia and Brazil. Australia’s compulsory voting is just another innovative and progressive step along its democratic history. Brazils electronic voting machines are user friendly barring none from use and have a built in safeguard system to secure the vote.


One Comment

  1. jonolan says:

    First off, I agree with you that compulsory voting would be, overall, a bad thing and for essentially the reasons you’ve so well stated.

    However, you’ve got some of your figure, not wrong but rather irrelevant. The popular vote is meaningless due to the Electoral College. A Presidential candidate can win w/ anything above 50% of the popular vote in a mere 11 states: CA, TX, FL, NY, IL, PA, OH, GA, MI, NC, and NJ.

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