On Monday J. P. Green flagged a Newsweek article “Should Voting Be Compulsory?” by William A. Galston and E. J. Dionne, Jr. The article summarized their more accurately-titled Brookings paper, “The case for universal voting: Why making voting a duty would enhance our elections and improve our government,” which fleshes out an idea that is generating buzz among those who are interested in electoral reforms.
The Brookings Paper deserves a close read. Their proposal would make American democracy less of a spectator sport with a more robust citizenship commitment. As the authors write in the introduction to their paper:
When we receive a summons for jury duty, we are required to present ourselves at the court. Should we treat showing up at the polls in elections the same way? Although the idea seems vaguely un-American, it is neither unusual, nor undemocratic, nor unconstitutional. And it would ease the intense partisan polarization that weakens both our capacity for self-government and public trust in our governing institutions.
It is easy to dismiss this idea as rooted in a form of coercion that is incompatible with our individualistic and often libertarian political culture. But consider Australia, whose political culture may be as similar to that of the United States as the culture of any other democracy in the world.
Galston and Dionne highlight “the Australian Solution,” requiring all eligible voters to show up at the polls on Election Day. They don’t have to mark their ballots. But they do have to show up or pay small fines — about the same as for routine traffic tickets. But the fines do increase with each failure to show, with exceptions like illness and foreign travel. All fines can be appealed in court. The Australian law also required citizens to register to vote, and the system facilitates registration.
“The results were remarkable. In the 1925 election, the first held under the new law,” write Dionne and Galston, “turnout soared to 91 percent. In the 27 elections since World War Two, turnout in Australia averaged 95 percent…It is hard to doubt that there is a causal connection…” The authors cite “additional evidence from the Netherlands, which operated under similar legislation from 1946 to 1967. During that time, turnout averaged 95 percent. After the Netherlands repealed this law, turnout has fallen to an average of 80 percent.”
The authors explain that the Australian experience enhanced citizen commitment dramatically and made it more of a norm nationwide. “Their sense of civic duty
makes them reluctant to cast uninformed ballots and inclines them to learn at least the basics about issues, parties and candidates.” They believe the reform could be tweaked to work in the U.S., where the quality of voter awareness and commitment is declining.
Among the reform’s numerous benefits:
Universal voting would help fill the vacuum in participation by evening out disparities stemming from income, education, and age. It would enhance our system’s ability to represent all our citizens and give states and localities incentives to lower, not raise, procedural barriers to the full and equal participation of each citizen in the electoral process.
If citizens had a legal obligation to vote, managers of our electoral process would in turn have an obligation to make it as simple as possible for voters to discharge this duty. The weakening of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court has allowed many states to impose new requirements on voters and to cut back on early and Sunday voting.
Universal voting would change the presumptions in favor of broad democratic participation and put states on the side of promoting that goal. It would also improve electoral competition. Campaigns could devote far less money to costly, labor-intensive get-out-the-vote efforts. Media consultants would not have an incentive to drive down turnout with negative advertising (even though such advertising would no doubt remain part of their repertoire). Candidates would know that they had to do more than appeal to their respective bases with harshly divisive rhetoric and an emphasis on hot-button issues.
This brings us to a benefit of universal voting that goes to the heart of our current ills. Along with many other factors, our low turnout rate pushes American politics toward hyper-polarization. Intense partisans are more likely to participate in lower-turnout elections while those who are less ideologically committed and less fervent about specific issues are more likely to stay home. Although responding to strong sentiments is an important feature of sustainable democratic institutions, our elections tilt much too far in that direction.
Bringing less partisan voters into the electorate would reduce this instability, and it would offer parties and candidates new challenges and opportunities. The balance of electoral activities would shift from the mobilization of highly committed voters toward the persuasion of the less committed.
Candidates unwilling or unable to engage in persuasion would be more likely to lose. If political rhetoric cooled a bit, the intensity of polarization would diminish, improving
the prospects for post-election compromise. Rather than focusing on symbolic gestures whose principal purpose is to agitate partisans, Congress might have much stronger incentives to take on serious issues and solve problems. To pick up a term of the moment, universal voting might combat the “Trumpification” of politics.
“Right now,” say the authors, “citizenship in America is radically unbalanced: it is strong on rights but weak on responsibilities. With the abolition of the universal draft, citizens are asked to pay their taxes and obey the law– and show up for jury duty when summoned. That’s about it. Making voting universal would begin to right the balance. And it would send an important message: we all have the duty to help shape the country that has given us so much. ”
Galston and Dionne acknowledge that the political deck is stacked against their proposal at this political moment. They urge that some of the states who may be more amenable to universal voting begin the experiment with the idea, while moving forward on other needed voting reforms, like automatic, on-line and election day registration.
“We have advanced a proposal that stands outside the perimeter of what is now likely,” note the authors in their conclusion. “We hope that doing so will enrich the public debate–in the short term, by advancing the cause of more modest reforms that would increase participation; in the long term, by expanding our understanding of what is worth trying. For as recent events have demonstrated, ideas can sometimes move from the impossible to the inevitable at a pace that once seemed unimaginable. Universal voting could do so as well, for it is as deeply American an idea as Lincoln’s promise of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
For an audio clip in which Dionne and Galston further discuss their proposal, click below: