Point/Counterpoint: Should voting be mandatory?

BY DI STAFF | MAY 01, 2014 5:00 AM

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On Tuesday night, the University of Iowa Public Policy Center hosted a forum examining how the U.S. might be different if everyone voted. One way of achieving that utopian ideal would be to enact a system of compulsory voting.

No, of course it shouldn’t

Since the age of 11, I have vigorously lamented political apathy. The notion that people just don’t care about what’s going on around them has always bothered me to no end.

I would be overjoyed if every single person in the United States was politically informed and an active participant in our democracy.

Initially, compulsory voting seems like it might be a good solution to chronically low voter turnout and political apathy.

Let’s say we imitate Australia’s compulsory-voting scheme. If you don’t vote, you’re slapped with a $20 fine. If you don’t pay, then you go to court and have to pay a bigger fee, and it might involve a little jail time.

Here’s the problem: the U.S. judicial system lacks the resources it needs to get through its current workload in a timely manner, as the Brennan Center for Justice outlined in a report last year.

Compulsory voting would mean hiring gobs of bureaucrats to make sure everyone voted, throwing money at the courts so they could prosecute the people who failed to vote, along with buying a bunch of new voting machines and recruiting more poll workers.

Fortunately, there are other ways to increase voter turnout.

Caroline Tolbert, a political-science professor at the University of Iowa who participated in Tuesday night’s forum on voting, pointed to a number of options that could increase voter turnout.

The United States could automatically register adults to vote. We could implement Election Day registration nationwide. Better yet, let’s make redistricting committees for congressional seats nonpartisan to prevent gerrymandering. Or scrap the Electoral College, so that if you’re a liberal in Texas or a conservative in Illinois, your vote in the presidential election will matter. Preventing corporate titans from pouring gobs of money into political campaigns would help, too.

When we haven’t even tried to make elections fairer, it seems premature to go straight for the most radical option and force everyone to vote.

I’ve cared about democracy for most of my life, but even I recognize that jumping straight to mandatory voting would be an unnecessarily big leap at this time.

—by Jon Overton

Yes, tax ’em till they vote

On its face, compulsory voting has a sort of sneakily authoritarian patina — vote or else, etc., etc. — probably because the highest profile examples of compulsory or quasi-compulsory voting systems come from such dictatorships as North Korea or Iraq in the Saddam Hussein days.

But in a country in which 60 percent of the people vote in the absolute best-case scenario, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to force people to come out to vote once a year.

The system would be pretty straightforward. All citizens must vote in person or by mail, and if they don’t, they’ll be subject to a small fine. Conscientious objectors who prefer not to vote can simply submit a blank ballot, and anyone unable to vote need only clear it with the relevant bureaucracy ahead of time to avoid the fine.

The point here is to change the conception of voting from an optional activity to a mandatory duty that’s part of the social contract of living in a democratic society, such as paying taxes.

This will obviously have to be done in conjunction with less ambitious changes, of course, to ensure that it’s logistically possible for everyone to vote. We’ll need more robust mail-in voting and more early voting opportunities, for example. These changes on their own, however, would not be enough to meaningfully increase voting because the reality is that the leading cause of non-voting in the United States isn’t a lack of access but pure apathy.

Compulsory voting deals with apathy in the only effective way: a firm kick in the wallet.

But why, you might ask, would we want apathetic people to vote at all? Fair question, but remember that the current system certainly does not discourage the ignorant from voting, it merely ensures that we get an unrepresentative sample of ignorant people electing our leaders. Under my system, at least we’d all be making uninformed decisions together.

And as for the idea that this plan would require a major expansion of the bureaucracy, I’m not so sure. If the penalty were assessed as a small tax, the enforcement clout of the IRS (undermanned though it may be) could be leveraged against potential voting scofflaws. Seems like a plan to me.

—by Zach Tilly

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