Is it time to make voting mandatory in the United States?

The U.S. prides itself as the beacon of democracy, but it’s very likely no U.S. president has ever been elected by a majority of American adults.

It’s our own fault — because voter participation rates are running below 60 percent, a candidate would have to win 85 percent or more of the vote to be elected by a majority…Compulsory voting, as exists in Australia and more than two dozen other countries, would fix that problem. As William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues, “Jury duty is mandatory; why not voting?”

Mandating voting has a clear effect: It raises participation rates. Before Australia adopted compulsory voting in 1924, for example, it had turnout rates similar to those of the U.S. After voting became mandatory, participation immediately jumped from 59 percent in the election of 1922 to 91 percent in the election of 1925…

For economists, the puzzle is not why voting participation rates are so low in voluntary systems, but why they’re so high. The so-called paradox of voting…occurs because the probability that any individual voter can alter the outcome of an election is effectively zero. So if voting imposes any cost, in terms of time or hassle, a perfectly rational person would conclude it’s not worth doing. The problem is that if each person were to reach such a rational conclusion no one would vote, and the system would collapse.

Mandatory voting solves that collective action problem by requiring people to vote and punishing nonvoters with a fine. In Australia, the penalty starts small and rises significantly for those who repeatedly fail to vote.

Beyond simply raising participation, compulsory voting could alter the role of money in elections. Turn-out-the-vote efforts, often bankrolled by big-money groups, would become largely irrelevant. Negative advertising could be less effective, because a central aim of such ads is to discourage participation in the opponent’s camp…Surely sounds like the Republican/Kool Aid Party.

Politicians don’t seem to believe the dominant political science view suggesting mandatory voting would have little effect on elections, perhaps with good reason given some research suggesting a larger impact. Moving to compulsory voting would probably require a constitutional change and almost certainly would require the participation of both parties. It could be instituted only when it would not be of obvious benefit to one political party over another.

This brings us to the paradox of compulsory voting: It’s a sensible idea that could be enacted only when it would have almost no effect. In that case, some might wonder, why do it? The answer is that increased participation would make our democracy work better, in the sense of being more reflective of the population at large. And it could allow the first president in history to be elected by a majority of American adults.

The toughest part of making such a qualitative change isn’t getting it introduced. As dead in the water as are most Congressional hacks, the sense of parallel between jury duty as a civic responsibility isn’t beyond the average Democrat. The problem will be the two levels of resistance among Republicans. Those few who legitimately believe it’s somehow violating individual liberty – and the overwhelming number who fear greater participation in any election probably would benefit Democrats.

From their own narrow, class-based perspective they’re probably right. All the more reason to make popular participation mandatory.

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