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
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.
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