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Anti Compulsory Voting Essays

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Debate: Compulsory voting

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Is mandatory voting a good idea?

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Background and context

There are currently 32 countries with compulsory voting around the world. They include Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay, Singapore, Cyprus, Greece, and others. Of these 32 countries, 12 aggressively enforce their mandatory voting laws with penalties of varying kinds, including nominal penalties and small fees of as low as $15
and the deprivation of government services or the freezing of one's bank account. Australia is considered particularly notably for its mandatory voting because it is a large "mature" democracy. Australians have been required to vote in federal elections since 1924, out of a concern that voter turnout had dipped below 60 percent. Polls regularly show 70 percent to 80 percent of Australians support mandatory voting, and voter turnout is above 90% (comparing very favorably to the United States where voter turnout hovers around 50% to 60%). The debate surrounds whether mandatory voting enhances a democracy, improves voter participation, increases voter awareness on key political issues, and reduces arguably wasteful campaign spending on such things as voter turnout. But, opponents wonder whether compulsory voting violates the "right" to vote, and thus to not vote? Finally, should voting be seen as a duty or merely a right? These and other arguments are outlined below.

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Democracy: Does mandatory voting enhance democracy?

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Pro

  • Voting is not only a right, but a responsibility. The whole point of freedom is that everyone has a say and has a responsibility to voice their opinion, otherwise the system doesn't work. non-compulsory voting encourages entire classes of people to not bother with voting, since it is demanding, having to stand in long queues all day. People should exercise their right and responsibility to vote.
  • 50% turnout not democracy; mandatory voting necessary.Keith Olbermann. "Make voting mandatory voting necessary." Salon. November 5, 2002: "two modest proposals to get head and hair flying. First: Mandatory voting. You heard me. A democracy where half of the citizens sit back and say, 'no, thanks,' isn't a democracy at all -- just a really large oligarchy. If we have not already reached it, we are nearing, inevitably, the point at which everyone who votes has a personal stake in the outcome. As the percentage of lever-pullers continues to decline, it's going to eventually be just the candidates' friends, families and people from their secret second lives who even bother to show up. You know -- like park league softball."
  • Mandatory voting broadens representation and legitimacy. Such a system guarantees that the government represents a majority of the population, not only a minority of individuals who vote. This helps ensure that governments do not neglect sections of society that are less active politically, and victorious political leaders of compulsory systems may potentially claim greater political legitimacy than those of non-compulsory systems with lower voter turnout.
  • Mandatory voting decreases need for big dollars in campaigns. Because mandatory voting means that no large campaign funds are needed to goad voters to the polls, the role of money in politics will decrease.
  • Compulsory voting reduces power of lobbying groups. A benefit of compulsory voting is that it makes it more difficult for special interest groups to vote themselves into power. Under a non-compulsory voting system, if fewer people vote then it is easier for smaller sectional interests and lobby groups to control the outcome of the political process. The outcome of the election reflects less the will of the people (Who do I want to lead the country?) but instead reflects who was logistically more organized and more able to convince people to take time out of their day to cast a vote (Do I even want to vote today?).
  • Compulsory voting decreases risk of political instability. High levels of participation decreases the risk of political instability created by crises or dangerous but charismatic leaders.
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Con

  • Mandatory voting does not enhance legitimacy of govt. Even if compulsory voting allows for abstention, legitimacy is not improved. It merely allows the government to say 'because there is a 100% turnout, this government is 100% legitimate', which is clearly not the case. Donkey votes, random votes, "just for the fun of it" votes, protest votes and abstentions do NOT contribute to improved legitimacy of the government. There is a reason why some people are less politically active. They neither know nor care about politics. How can their forced input add legitimacy to the mix?
  • Mandatory voting pushes ignorant to vote Some individuals resent the idea of compulsory voting, particularly if they have no interest in politics or no knowledge of the candidates. Others may be well-informed, but have no preference for any particular candidate, and have no wish to give support to the incumbent political system. Such people may vote at random simply to fulfill legal requirements: the so called donkey-vote may account for 1-2% of votes in these systems, which may affect the electoral process. Similarly, citizens may vote with a complete absence of knowledge of any of the candidates, or deliberately skew their ballot to slow the polling process or disrupt the election.
  • Not voting is often a form of political expression. Supporters of voluntary voting assert that low voter participation in a voluntary election is not necessarily an expression of voter dissatisfaction or general political apathy. It may be simply an expression of the citizenry's political will, indicating satisfaction with the political establishment in an electorate. Mark Latham urged Australians to hand in blank votes for the 2010 election. He stated the government should not force citizens to vote or threaten them with a fine.
  • Mandatory voting may increase hold of established parties"The case against compulsory voting in democracies." Helium: "the political system in America is concentrated in two parties, with only minor successes of alternate parties. These two parties, as opposed to eight competitive parties in Australia, spend millions of dollars annually encouraging their members to vote in elections. With the implementation of compulsive voting, the political parties would instead spend those millions trying to convince non-party members of the superiority of their respective positions. Instead of saving money, the two parties would only increase in power as more members join their folds, reducing the power of smaller parties to democratically compete."
  • Forcing a vote is as bad for democracy as poor turnout.Debra Saunders. "The trouble with compulsory voting." Real Clear Politics. July 13th, 2010: "I do recognise that a low turnout in elections lends itself to questions about the legitimacy of those elected – and indeed, in the institutions themselves. But if we are 'forced to be free' (and I’m using that in not quite the way Rousseau did, though if his assertion that we are only truly free when electing our representatives is correct, then it follows) then the legitimacy that we are bestowing upon those who represent us appears to be artificial and manufactured at best."

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Political education: Does mandatory voting help educate electorate?

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Pro

  • Mandatory voting compels voters to better educate themselves. Compulsory voting will potentially encourage voters to research the candidates' political positions more thoroughly. This may force candidates to be more open and transparent about their positions on many complex and controversial issues. Citizens will be willing to inform themselves even about unpopular policies and burning issues that need to be tackled (some even at the cost of social benefits). Better-informed voters will, therefore, oppose a plan that is unrealistic or would present an unnecessary budget-drain. This means that such a system could produce better political decisions that are not contradicting each other, quite upon the contrary.
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Con

  • Compulsory voting won't compel voters to become more informed. Compulsory voting will not bring people's attention to politics. Why? If they were too lazy to vote in the first place, why should they go researching the issues now? They will simply go from the bar to the polling booth and back to the bar in as short a time as is feasible. Thus, this will result in anything but a more informed electorate and better policies.
  • Compulsory voting may cause backlash against participation. Compulsory voting may discourage political education of the citizens because people forced to participate may react against the perceived source of oppression.

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Rights: Is mandatory voting a requirement?

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Pro

  • Compulsory voting is smaller intrusion than jury duty, taxes, etc. Other civic duties also exist, like paying taxes, attending school and, in some democracies, military conscription and jury duty. All of these obligatory actives require far more time and effort than voting does, thus compulsory voting can be seen as constituting a much smaller intrusion of freedom than any of these other activities.
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Con

  • Mandatory voting undermines the "right" to vote Voting is not a civic duty, but rather a civil right. While citizens may exercise their civil rights (free speech, marriage, etc.) they are not compelled to. Compulsory voting can be seen as infringing a basic freedom of the citizen. Some consider the fining of recalcitrant voters to be more oppressive still.
Jerry Curtis. "The case against compulsory voting in democracies." Helium: "A case against compulsory voting can be founded on the fact that voting is a right, but not strictly an obligation. True, most rights have inherent obligations. For example, the right to free speech carries with it the obligation to exercise it responsibly. Likewise, the right to vote has a similar obligation. However, when made compulsory, voting becomes less than a right, especially when there is some penalty attached to failure to vote."
  • Voting is not a civic duty. A duty is a duty only when there is some tangible service involved. How can I, voting for what I myself want, be in any way performing a service for some else?
  • Compulsory voting violates freedom of choice. A democracy is based on the principle of respecting basic human freedoms, such as free choice. This principle is directly violated by compulsory voting, as people do not have the right to choose not to express their view (should they have any).
  • Compulsory voting may infringe on freedom to express one's relgion. For example, most Jehovah's Witnesses believe that they should not participate in political events. Forcing them to vote explicitly denies them their freedom of religious practice. In some countries with universal voting, Jehovah's Witnesses and others may be excused on these grounds. If however they are obliged to show up to vote, they can still use a blank or invalid vote.

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Non-participation: Could this ability still be preserved?

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Pro

  • Voters could be given option to vote "none of the above."Keith Olbermann. "Make voting mandatory voting necessary." Salon. November 5, 2002: "The message has to be clear: We're not trying to make you vote for anybody. We just want you to show up. Every ballot, from the presidency to the sewage district supervisor, would have to include a 'none of the above' option. We might tinker with the terminology to make it hipper, and to tap into the incipient anger. 'None of the above' could become 'Screw you, politicians.'"
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Con

  • There are many reasons for not participating in elections.Balaji Chithra Ganesan. "The Case against Compulsory Voting." Musings. January 16th, 2010: "People have genuine reasons not to vote. They could be working away from home and cannot afford to go home for voting. Daily labourers cannot miss a day's work. People might be sick, old and dying. People might be travelling for causes that are much more important like ... family. In the ridiculously staggered elections we have, people can have a holiday when their place of work goes to polls and not when their hometown goes to polls. Now how incredibly arrogant and perverted should someone be, to ask the above people to come, stand before a babu and explain their conduct? Or else face punishment! Really? How arrogant? How can citizens be treated with such disdain?"

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Enforcement: Can compulsory voting be enforced?

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Pro

  • Punishment for not voting could be modest but symbolic. A fine could be imposed of between $15 and $100. This is tolerable, and if somebody really doesn't want to vote, they could easily absorb such a fee. The point is that it is a recognizable punishment and a modest incentive to participate in an election. Many other very small nominal punishments could be considered as an alternative as well.
  • Exemptions for when citizens can't vote/pay. Although voting in a country may be compulsory, penalties for failing to vote are not always strictly enforced. In Australia and Brazil, providing a legitimate reason for not voting (e.g. being sick or outside the country) is accepted. In Argentina, those who were ill on voting day, or over 500 kilometers away from their voting place are also excused, by requesting a doctor to prove their condition, in the first case; or asking for a certificate at a police station near where they are, in the second case. A homeless person could also presumably be exempted from paying a fee for not voting.
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Con

  • Mandatory voting would be difficult to enforce.Jerry Curtis. "The case against compulsory voting in democracies." Helium: "compulsory voting would probably cause additional problems in administering the vote, as well as problems in enforcement. (What about absentee voting?) Enforcing penalties (fines, public service, etc.) would further encumber our already clogged justice system. It would also adulterate our political process with worthless ballots from those voters who are uninterested and ill-informed. In short, voting is a right, but not an obligation."
  • Unacceptable to punish citizens when they aren't harming others."The Case against Compulsory Voting." Musings. January 16th, 2010: "Article 21 of our constitution provides for 'Personal liberty'. I think its a violation of fundamental rights provided by that article, to make citizens explain their choices in such a whimsical issue as voting in the elections. And punishing citizens for not harming anyone's right to anything is utterly unacceptable. Remember, this article grants citizens the right to Emigrate out of India without having to give any reason."

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Access: Will mandatory voting improve access?

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Pro

  • Compulsory voting helps protect voter access. In a similar way that the secret ballot is designed to prevent interference with the votes actually cast, compulsory voting prevents interference with access to the vote. Compelling voters to the polls for an election mitigates the impact that external factors may have on an individual's capacity to vote such as the weather, transport, or restrictive employers. It is a measure to prevent disenfranchisement of the socially disadvantaged. Polls are generally held on a Saturday or Sunday as evidenced in nations such as Australia, to ensure that working people can fulfill their duty to cast their vote. Similarly, mobile voting booths may also be taken to old age homes and hospitals to cater for immobilized citizens, and postal voting may be provided for people who are away from their electorate on election day.
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Con

  • Quality of decisions matters more than access to vote. The important thing is that informed citizens are electing the best possible candidates to lead communities, states, and an entire country. Access to vote is also important, but it is somewhat secondary to the ultimate question of quality leadership.

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William Galston: James Madison would be smiling
Let's imagine a future in which Americans must vote, or face a penalty.
It's April 2021. Media outlets around the country headlined major agreements between Democrats and Republicans on the long-stalled issues of tax and immigration reform. Commentators marveled at the momentous shift in American politics away from the polarization and gridlock of the previous two decades.
What happened? Although opinions differed, observers agreed on one key point: The decision to follow the lead of countries such as Australia and institute mandatory voting in national elections transformed the political landscape. As turnout rose from 60% to 90%, citizens with less intense partisan and ideological commitments flooded into the electorate. Campaigns could no longer prevail simply by mobilizing core supporters. Instead, they had to persuade swing voters to come their way. They soon discovered that these new voters preferred compromise to confrontation and civil discourse to scorched-earth rhetoric. Candidates who presented themselves as willing to reach across the aisle to get things done got a boost while zealots went down to defeat.
Both political parties soon realized that they had a stake in a nominating process that produced the kinds of candidates the expanded electorate preferred. They eliminated party caucuses dominated by intense minorities and opened up their primaries to independents. They discovered that maximizing participation in their primaries was the best way of preparing for the general election. Individual donors, who wanted to invest in winners, favored candidates who could command broad support.
Once in office, members of the House and Senate tried hard to keep faith with the expanded electorate that had sent them to Washington. They spent less time in party caucuses and more doing serious legislative work. Congressional leaders returned power to the committees, where members relearned the art of compromise across party lines.
And somewhere, James Madison was smiling. Reforming institutions to change incentives is always the most effective course, and once again it had worked.
William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in its governance studies program.
Gretchen Helmke and Bonnie Meguid: Motive is not what you think
With roughly 40% of eligible citizens voting, turnout in U.S. midterm elections is notoriously low. Compulsory voting offers one possible, if radical, solution. Like any political institution, laws on it have multiple, if disputed, consequences.
Today, compulsory voting exists in roughly a quarter of all democracies in the world, ranging from Western Europe and Australia to Latin America and Asia. Yet few believe that it stands any chance of being adopted in the United States. Why?
Our research suggests that the decision to adopt compulsory voting is largely strategic. While proponents often couch their arguments in terms of public benefits, it appears that parties around the world have been more likely to adopt it when such laws stand to favor their candidates and hurt their opponents.
Changing the electoral rules is not a risk-free proposition, however. Governing parties are unlikely to modify the rules that elected them. Only governing parties with relatively under-mobilized electorates and a growing opposition find compulsory voting an attractive option.
Interestingly, conservatives in the late 19th and early 20th century in Western Europe and Latin America were the first to champion compulsory voting. Expansion of suffrage dramatically shifted the composition of the voting population, while industrialization swelled the ranks of the working class and created new political identities. During this period, the left's organizational ability to mobilize voters was unmatched. Parties on the right countered with mandatory voting, which aimed to bring out their natural constituencies.
Today, the situation in the United States is just the opposite. With unions in decline, Democrats are disproportionately hurt by abstention. A recent George Washington University poll shows that in the coming election Republicans are fully 7 percentage points more likely to vote than Democrats. In other words, the politicians that will likely determine the rules of the game have no incentive to change them.
Gretchen Helmke is associate professor and chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Rochester. Bonnie Meguid is associate professor in the same department.
Haydon Manning: In Australia, politics as usual continue
Technically speaking, Australian citizens are not compelled to vote. Instead, they are required to attend a polling station, and upon receipt of their ballot, decide to vote or discard it. Granted, the failure to attend to one's "democratic duty" may incur a small fine if insufficient excuse is offered.
This approach goes back decades, having been adopted in 1924 for national elections. But the idea itself is even older, having been debated in 19th century colonial parliaments. While views vary as to the ultimate cause of its introduction, there is no doubt that concerns over low voter turnout, in a nation only two decades old, drove the decision.
Shepherding people to vote in this way might seem odd to some, but government loomed large in colonial Australia -- in sharp contrast to the American experience. This tradition of state paternalism did not wane when the Federation of Australia was formed in 1901 (i.e., when the six separate colonies became one nation). So, it was not surprising that the decision to compel voters to attend to duty was ultimately a bipartisan decision.
How successful has this approach been? In recent decades, about 5% of voters are typically asked to explain their absence on polling day. Surveys consistently indicate that about 70% say they favor compulsory voting, and 80% say they would still vote even if voting was not compulsory.
A decade ago, the conservative coalition government of John Howard controlled both houses of parliament, and its Senate leader proposed abolishing compulsory voting. In the end, old habits die hard, and the proposal failed to gain traction.
Political parties here may have good reasons to keep the current system. After all, "mandatory" voting makes it easier for politicians to keep the focus on attacking opponents, without being distracted by the task of encouraging a sometimes disillusioned party base to turn out.
I've been a supporter of "compulsion." But in the contemporary campaign setting, I doubt its virtues. Turning the vote out might not be a problem, but wooing disengaged citizens now requires banal sloganeering and crass misleading negative advertising. To me, this can diminish the democratic experience for those who take the time to think through the issues.
Haydon Manning is an associate professor at Flinders University's School of Social and Policy Studies in Adelaide, South Australia.
Ari Ratner: Ill-suited for America now
Should voting be compulsory? No. Should voting be far easier? Absolutely.
The arguments for compulsory voting seem persuasive. At least 38 countries have— or have had— some form of mandatory voting laws. U.S. turnout, in contrast, falls short of most advanced democracies.
Low turnout imposes real costs on our political system. It both reflects and helps drive an eroding sense of democratic legitimacy. It negatively impacts the representation of groups with low turnout levels, like younger voters and minorities. And it magnifies the power of special interests.
Yet, mandatory voting is ill-suited to America's current realities. First, it's impractical. Congress is currently incapable of passing a mandatory voting law. The federal bureaucracy and court system, moreover, are unlikely to be able to enforce any such law.
Would we impose sanctions on those who fail to vote? Would there be an exemption system? Is the voting system even equipped to handle a rush of new voters? (Remember the long lines of 2012 and the butterfly ballots of 2000?)
Mandatory voting would be a bureaucratic and legal nightmare. Not to mention that refusing to vote itself can be an important form of protest.
Far more important than the red herring on mandatory voting would be to make it far easier to register and cast a ballot.
Options available to facilitate voting include: making election day a national holiday or a weekend; expanding early voting and same-day voter registration, both of which Republicans have cut back in many states; creating an opt-out rather than an opt-in voter registration system; and increasing opportunities for remote voting via absentee ballots, vote-by-mail, or online voting.
Voting rights remains an important issue, especially given the rising cacophony about largely nonexistent "voter fraud." (One recent investigation found 31 credible incidents of voter impersonation in 1 billion ballots).
But the way to increase voter participation isn't to mandate it. It's to build a system capable of accommodating our citizens' voting needs.
Ari Ratner is a fellow at New America Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter: @amratner
Donna Brazile: You have to pay taxes, so why not have to vote?
Mandatory voting requires citizens to present themselves at the polling place and either cast their votes on the candidates and issues, or spoil a ballot, indicating their disgust with the entire lot.
I've come to favor mandatory voting. It will sink the role of big money in our elections. Campaign spending is becoming a scourge and a scandal in our self-government. Millions are even spent for the anti-democratic purpose of reducing voter turnout for the opposition.
All that money, from secret contributors — guaranteeing greater influence for those who have money, over those who do not — cannot possibly have a healthy effect on the candidates on whom it pours. Are things better since the Supreme Court allowed big money to be introduced?
In the United States, voter turnout for midterm elections has been under 50% since the 1940s. This means that less than half of the American electorate gets to decide which party will control Congress. This can't be a good thing. In places that have mandatory voting, like Australia, there are indications of less polarization and dissatisfaction in the electorate.
I know some bristle at the idea of having to cast a vote, even a protest vote for Lassie. Yet, voting is the essential, central and indispensable feature of democracy. We require jury attendance, paying taxes, and public education attendance because those are also essential functions. Is voting less important?
Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America."