Compulsory Voting.

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Compulsory Voting

As of recent times, not only has the conception of United States as the international

vanguard of democracy been tarnished, but also several flaws of the American democratic

system have been revealed, raising questions about the legitimacy of the American government.

Indeed, it is hard to claim with a straight face that fundamental questions concerning the

legitimacy of the government of the United States as a democratic system of governance

representative of the will of its citizens are unwarranted. Such questions about the legitimacy of

the American government arise partly as a result of recent statistics depicting the traditionally

low rate of voter participation in national elections.

The percentage of the voting age population (VAP) that turned out to vote in national

presidential elections has declined from 63.06% in 1960 to 51.3% in 2000 (Federal Election

Commission), and the decline of the percentage of the VAP that votes in mid-term elections has

been even greater, with only a staggeringly low 39.4%

turnout in 2002, constituting a more than

20% decrease from the 1960s (Center for Voting and Democracy). Since 1924, the percentage of

the VAP that voted in presidential elections has hovered somewhere around 50% (Federal

Electoral Commission). Moreover, the United States ranks 139th out of 172 countries in terms of

the average percentage of the VAP that has turned out for every national election since 1945

with an average of 47.7% in 28 elections, while countries with a comparable number of national

elections such as Austria, Australia, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand,

Iceland, and Italy all have above 80% VAP participation (IDEA 83-84).

There are those who dispute the decline in turnout, stating that measures of the VAP

include felons and foreign nationals who are of voting age and living in the United States but

who are ineligible to vote, and exclude American nationals who live abroad. If the turnout rates

are adjusted accordingly, it is true that there has not been a large decline in voting population,

and that voting rates are consistently higher than rates determined for the VAP (McDonald,

Popkin 3). However, the readjustment only constitutes an average four point gain in turnout,

which cannot be considered a significant increase. Though the decline in turnout is disputed, the

fact remains that the voter turnout rate has hovered around 50% for presidential elections, and

has been consistently lower for congressional elections.

Many proposals have been made to remedy the anemic level of voter participation.

However, they have failed to make a significant difference. In the book Why Americans Don't

Vote, authors Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward asserted that the low voting rates have

their historical roots in the exclusionary voter registration systems established at the end of the

nineteenth century. Obstructive registration procedures such as poll taxes and literacy tests were

instituted both in the South and North, resulting in the decreased size of the electorate.

Consequently, major parties did not have to gear their strategies towards attracting the vote of

the lower class. Though poll taxes and literacy tests have since been abolished, there are still

many obstacles in place that continue to perpetrate the disenfranchisement of the lower classes

(Piven, Cloward viii). Easing voter registration standards and making voter registration

procedures more accessible, Piven and Cloward claimed, would result in the increase of voter

turnout. Their claims were bolstered by the fact that turnout figures measured according to the

percentage of registered voters that vote were much higher than the turnout figures measured

according to the percentage of the VAP that votes. However, when the motor-voter law was

passed in 1993 by Congress, which was one of the proposed solutions in Piven's and Cloward's

book, voter turnout failed to increase (Wilson, DiIulio 131).

Finger-pointing pundits have located the solution to the low turnout problem with such

superficial reforms as "higher-minded rhetoric, the end to 'negative' political ads, new campaign

finance laws, weightier journalism and more distinctive party platforms (Popkin, McDonald

B1)." Yet these reforms, along with solutions like get-out-the-vote drives, are destined to fail

because the federal system of the United States inherently fosters low turnout. G. Bingham

Powell, a preeminent scholar of comparative political science, notes that while parliamentary

systems have strong national parties and greater accountability due to a centralized government,

a federal system divides responsibility between state and national governments, and between a

bicameral legislature and an executive at each level (qtd. in McDonald, Popkin 21). In addition,

elections in parliamentary countries take on more importance because they are held once every

four or five years, whereas in the United States elections are held every two years at the local,

state, and national levels for an estimated 521,000 elective offices (Wilson, DiIulio 142-3).

Indeed, countries with federal governments similar to the United States, such as Switzerland and

Japan, have similar rates of turnout (IDEA 83-84).

However, there are still some reforms that have not been adequately discussed in the

United States, one of these reforms being compulsory voting. After the 2000 elections in

Canada, a low voter turnout prompted Canada's chief election official to suggest that his country

consider mandatory voting (Soloman). Similar calls for compulsory voting were made in the

United Kingdom, after the turnout for 2001 general elections lowest general election turnout

since 1918 (Davies). However, voices in support of compulsory voting after the latest elections

were few and far between in the United States. Yet, the lack of true debate on compulsory voting

has done a great disservice to the American polity. The institution of compulsory voting in the

United States would not only create a more legitimate democracy, but would remedy many of

the ills that plague the present system by overcoming the inherent flaws of the federal system.

Compulsory voting, in both normative and descriptive terms, is a viable alternative to current

democratic system of governance in the United States.

The idea of compulsory voting is not as alien a concept to the rest of the world as it is to

the United States. While compulsory voting is typically associated with Communist or

totalitarian governments, democratic countries such as Australia, Italy, Belgium, Cyprus,

Luxembourg, Greece, and many Latin American countries have some form of compulsory

voting, though the enforcement of mandatory voting laws varies in degree from country to

country. Most of these countries have some sort of provision that allows an individual to be

excused from voting should he or she have a valid and sufficient reason. The punishments

imposed on an individual that does not have an acceptable excuse for not voting vary from

country to country, ranging from a fine to possible imprisonment and disenfranchisement (IDEA

107). In actuality, the term "compulsory voting" is a misnomer because voters are technically

only required to be present at the polling location on election day. Because of secret ballot

measures, the government cannot be certain that an individual actually voted, and thus

compulsory voting cannot be truly enforced. However, this technicality is of little consequence

and seems to have no significant effect on turnout rates.

The international model for a compulsory voting system within a democratic country is

Australia. The introduction of compulsory voting for Australian national elections in 1924

resulted in a dramatic increase in the voter turnout rate from 57.9% for the 1922 election to

91.3% for the 1925 election (Dept. of Parliamentary Library). Since 1945, an average of 84.2%

of the Australian VAP has turned out to vote in 22 elections (IDEA 83). The fine for not voting

is $20 AUD, or $11 US, though the fines are rarely imposed. Compulsory voting is seen as a

normal part of Australian political culture and has wide support in the Australian electorate.

Compulsory voting is seen as a normal part of Australian political culture and has wide support

in the Australian electorate, with 74% of the population in support of it (Australian Electoral


Unlike the first-past-the-post system of the United States, which awards the elective

office to whomever receives the most votes, the Australian electoral system utilizes alternative

voting for House of Representatives elections and proportional representation for Senate

elections. The aforementioned voting methods further enhance the system of compulsory voting

in Australia, and they stand to benefit the electoral process of the United States, but their merits

will not be debated here. Their mention only serves to highlight some methods that would

correct minor problems that cannot be solved completely by compulsory voting.

The system of compulsory voting that will be proposed carries with it two stipulations.

First, the right to vote means little without the freedom of speech, expression, and assembly.

These freedoms are prerequisites for any democracy, let alone a democracy with compulsory

voting. Therefore, compulsory voting is disassociated from totalitarian governments that used it

to claim legitimacy. Second, for a system of compulsory voting to be considered legitimate, it is

imperative that there be a "none-of-the-above" option on the ballot. The lack of such a ballot

option is the fatal flaw of compulsory voting systems throughout the world, including Australia.

The inclusion of a "none-of-the-above" option prevents the government from coercing voters to

vote for "the lesser of two evils", and leaves open a method for the voicing of conscious

dissatisfaction with the existing party structure. The following discussion of compulsory voting

will assume that there is a "none-of-the-above" option on the ballot.

Compulsory voting can find its ideological roots in, among other places, the political

philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his book, The Social Contract. Like many political

theorists of the day, Rousseau utilized the notion of a theoretical contract between men that

exchanged the natural liberty found in a hypothetical state of nature for the protection provided

by a government. However, unlike theorists such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau

believed that the formation of a social contract did not necessarily limit freedom; rather, the

social contract enhanced freedom. Rousseau's state of nature was not only a state in the absence

of government, as was the case with other social contract theorists, but was also a state in the

absence of society or civilization. Rousseau pictured men in this state as being primitive and

brutish, as well as being motivated by their natural desires and instincts. These men could not be

considered free, in Rousseau's eyes, because they lacked the ability to be moral and virtuous,

capacities which man could only exercise in civil society. In a political society, moral liberty is

synonymous with sovereignty, for man is most free when the rules he obeys are the rules he

himself makes. Thus, sovereignty must be granted to the people. Whereas Locke and Hobbes

allowed for the transfer of sovereignty to a ruler with the assent of the people, Rousseau believed

that sovereignty is inalienable and should reside only with the people. The manifestation of this

unalienable sovereignty is true democracy.

Rousseau creates a dichotomy of government, with legislative authority in the hands of

the Sovereign and the administrative authority with the government. The Sovereign is a body of

which each citizen is a member. Out of the Sovereign comes the General Will, which is the will

of every citizen when he wills toward the common good. The role of the government is to

administer and execute the General Will unconditionally. Though this is a gross

oversimplification of Rousseau's political thought, it will suffice for the topic at hand.

Compulsory voting is a legitimate form of democracy because, in Rousseau's terms, it allows for

the expression of the General Will of the sovereign citizenry, which in turn allows each citizen to

be morally autonomous. Compulsory voting strengthens the Sovereign's power over the

government, and the government is only legitimate when it rules according to the general will.

Compulsory voting ensures that the will of every citizen is expressed.

Under the aforementioned criteria for governmental legitimacy, a democracy with 40%

voter turnout cannot be considered legitimate, even though it has been claimed that increased

turnout would not make much of a difference in terms of electoral results (qtd. in Wilson,

DiIulio 137). Such an argument is specious and cannot be said definitively because in the United

States, for example, people in professional and managerial occupations vote at a greater rate than

semi-skilled and unskilled workers (Wilson, DiIulio 143), whites vote at a greater rate than

minorities, 45-64 year olds vote at a greater rate than 18-20 year olds, and females vote at a

greater rate than males (Federal Electoral Commission). To say that absolutely no change will

arise from the inclusion of these minority groups is most likely false, and even if increased

turnout does not have a partisan affect on the result of elections, the government is still more

legitimate because the will of every citizen was expressed.

The most common normative objection to compulsory voting is that coercing someone to

vote is not consistent with true democracy, in which citizens supposedly have the right to not

vote, and that voting is not an intrinsic obligation in a democracy. However, all governments

ultimately rely on some form of coercion. Currently, the US government coerces citizens through

taxation, conscription, compulsory education, and mandatory jury duty (Hirczy), and these forms

of coercion are not thought to be incongruous with democracy. Under the preceding logic, those

who do not vote would also not have to pay taxes, be drafted, or serve on juries. The argument

that in a democracy citizens do not have to vote because it is not an intrinsic obligation is flawed

and spurious, because the dividing line between one civic obligation and another is arbitrary.

Some will say that taxation and conscription are necessary for the functioning of the government

while voting is not, and that the government will still function with a low turnout. However, if

this argument is taken to its logical extension, then the government would still function if only

one person voted. Obviously, such a government would not be a legitimate democracy. Rather, it

would be a dictatorship, because only one person decided the agenda for the entire nation, just as

a democracy in which only 30% of the people vote is an oligarchy. Surely, compulsory voting is

a form of civic duty that serves to strengthen the polity. However, compulsory voting should not

only be seen from a deontological perspective of civic responsibility but also from the

perspective of moral autonomy and enhancement of choice. Hopefully, the "none-of-the-above"

option dispels any notion of compulsory voting as an enhancement of choice being an Orwellian

euphemism because it eliminates any criticism that compulsory voting would remove the option

of abstention as an expression of conscious dissent.

Another criticism that has been leveled at compulsory voting is that a system of

compulsory voting "debases" democracy and "ensures that the process and outcome of the vote

will be informed by considerations which are much less rational than appropriate

(McGuinness)." Democracy is cheapened, opponents say, because the people only vote out of

fear of punishment. However, this is the not case in Australia, where a survey conducted in 1987

found that only 7% of citizens voted because of the threat of a fine, and that the main feeling

associated with voting was satisfaction ("Liberal Democracy..."). It is not known whether the

same attitudes would be present in the United States, but the survey shows that compulsory

voting does not automatically "cheapen" democracy with respect to coercion.

The other claim made by opponents to compulsory voting is that forcing people who are

uninformed about politics to vote would lead to unwanted outcomes because these people do not

know what is good for the country. Indeed, this elitist and pessimistic view of human nature

motivated the drafters of the US Constitution to adopt a representative democracy with an

electoral college because they believed that the people were unable to govern themselves

(Wilson, DiIulio 20). It could be said that because the American government was structured

around the premise that people were incapable of deciding what is good for themselves, the

citizenry has grown over time to be dependent on the rule of "professional" politicians. This

ever-increasing dependency has caused more and more citizens to feel as though the government

is unresponsive to their interests, decreasing their sense of political efficacy (Wilson, DiIulio

94). Compulsory voting would be a step in the direction of citizen empowerment, and would

perhaps motivate voters to become educated about the matters on which they are voting and on

which their vote will have a direct effect. Furthermore, any claims that compulsory voting will

force uninformed people to vote are inherently flawed, for on what basis can one say that a voter

is informed as opposed to uninformed? To be "informed", is it required that one must watch

every nightly news program and read every major national newspaper? Must they also know

every bill proposed in Congress, and how each Congressperson voted on that bill? Must they be

acquainted with the intricacies of national policy? Must they memorize the tax code? The only

way to determine whether a voter is "informed" or not would be to require citizens to take a test

before they vote. However, such tests are reminiscent of voting obstacles such as poll taxes and

literacy tests, which were banned by the 14th Amendment. Since the line between "informed"

and "uninformed" is arbitrary and could be drawn anywhere, it must not be drawn at all.

Some claim that the low turnout in US elections is actually a sign of a healthy

democracy. By not voting, citizens give their implicit consent to the government and show that

they are satisfied with prevailing political practices ("Liberal Democracy..."). Though this may

hold true for some people, by no means does it hold true for the entire non-voting population.

There are many explanations why people do not vote, from the previously mentioned decrease in

the sense of political efficacy to even a sense of "political shyness" caused by

sociopsychological feelings of alienation and marginalization (Hill). In the United States, some

may not get the chance to vote because voting takes place on a weekday, and some may be too

occupied with work or family matters to vote. In addition, the government may intentionally

deny some citizens of their right to vote. For example, claims were made that African-Americans

were disenfranchised during the 2000 presidential elections in the state of Florida due to

"disparate and unfair voting practices across the state that resulted in the invalidation of a

disproportionate number of ballots cast by black voters for President, the wrongful purge of

black voters from official voter lists, a failure to properly process registrations of black voters,

and the establishment of unjustifiable barriers to black voters" (American Civil Liberties Union).

It cannot be said that these disenfranchised voters consented to the current political system by

not voting. Thus, a low turnout does not necessarily connote satisfaction with the government.

One problem that seems to accompany compulsory voting is that compulsory voting

increases the number of invalid votes, which are ballots that are cast improperly, and "donkey"

votes, which are votes where voters simply select the candidate at the top of the ballot (Hirczy).

The cause of these votes may be because compulsory voting forces citizens with low levels of

political interest or sophistication to vote. In addition, these invalid votes may be protests against

compulsory voting itself (Jackman). Under the proposed system of compulsory voting, however,

dissenters would be able to utilize the "none-of-the-above" option to voice their dissatisfaction

in a more powerful manner. While it is difficult to instantly discern whether or not the motive

for a citizen's abstention was dissatisfaction with the government under a voluntary voting

system, there is no question that a citizen's motive is dissatisfaction with the government when

he or she for "none-of-the-above". Regarding the invalid votes, compulsory voting is almost

certain to increase voter turnout in any country, and would be especially effective at raising

turnout in a federal country like United States because compulsory voting is more effective at

raising turnout in countries that predispose low voter turnout (qtd. in Jackman). This certain

increase in turnout is likely to exceed the increase in invalid ballots so that there are net gains in

participation (Hirczy).

Compulsory voting would enhance the party system of the United States. Currently,

enormous amounts of money are spent by political parties on trying to "get out the vote".

Political parties not only have to persuade voters to vote for that party, but have to convince

citizens to vote in the first place. Minor parties and independents are disadvantaged because they

do not have the resources to spend on efforts to "get out the vote" ("Liberal Democracy..."). If

voting were mandatory, party resources would not be tied up by efforts to "get out the vote",

leaving more resources to be spent on promoting the party platform (Hirczy).

Not only is compulsory voting a valid way of getting citizens to exercise civic

responsibility within a liberal democracy, but it also ensures that the democracy is legitimate in

the first place. Furthermore, by moving towards a direct rather than representative democracy,

compulsory voting enhances the citizen's capacity to be morally autonomous, for we are most

free when the laws we obey are the laws we make ourselves. Naturally, specific questions such

as how to enforce compulsory voting, how to punish non-voters, and when to excuse citizens for

not voting, along with other financial and administrative considerations, would have to be

answered. Nevertheless, a democracy that operates under a system of compulsory voting is a

legitimate and sound government. Whether these arguments will be heeded by the American

government and the American populace, however, remains to be seen.

Works Cited

American Civil Liberties Union. "'The System Must Be Fixed': Election Day Mess Triggers

Voting Rights Lawsuits Around the Country". Online.

f011201a.html>. 1 Dec. 2001. 13 Jun. 2003

Australia. Australian Electoral Commission. Electoral Backgrounder 8 - Compulsory Voting.

Canberra, 2002

Australia. Dept. of the Parliamentary Library. Statistics Group. Voter Turnout. Canberra, 1997

Center for Voting and Democracy. "Committee for the Study of the American Electorate

Post-Election News Release." Online. .

8 Nov. 2002. 15 Jan. 2003.

Hirczy de Mino, Wolfgang, "Compulsory Voting." Administration and Cost of Elections Project.

Online. 10 December 1997. 13

Jun. 2003

IDEA. Voter Turnout Since 1945: A Global Report. Stockholm: International Institute for

Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2002.

Hill, Lisa, "Compulsory Voting as a Democratic Innovation", Research School of Social

Sciences, Australian National University. Online. .

2001. 13 Jun. 2003

Jackman, Simon, "Compulsory Voting." Online. .


"Liberal Democracy: Political Rights and Duties". Open End Australia. Online.

. 1999. 13 Jun.


McDonald, Michael P. and Stanley L. Popkin, eds. The Myth of the Vanishing Voter. Proc. of

the American Political Science Conference. Washington, DC, 2000.

McGuinness, Padraic, "The Case Against Compulsory Voting." Personal Empowerment

Resources. Online. . 1997.

13 Jun. 2003

Piven, Francis Fox, and Richard Cloward. Why Americans Don't Vote. New York: Pantheon,


Wilson, James O., and John J. DiIulio Jr. American Government. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,


Popkin, Stanley L.. and Michael P. McDonald. "Turnout's Not as Bad as You Think."

Washington Post 5 November 2000: B1.

Soloman, D. John. "Even Those Who Don't Vote Should Have to go to Polls." USA Today 24

Oct. 2002. USA

solomon_x.htm>. 13 Jun. 2003

United States. Federal Electoral Commission. About Elections and Voting. Washington: GPO,


Davies, Mark. "Call for Compulsory Voting." BBC News. Online.

uk_news/politics/2703073.stm>. 30 Jan. 2003. 13 Jun. 2003.