What Would Happen If America Made Voting Mandatory?

Dozens of other countries force their citizens to participate in elections.
by | February 2016
(AP)

There’s already one thing we can say for sure about this year’s elections: Not enough people are going to vote. Turnout in 2012 was 55 percent, down from the presidential election held four years earlier. In the midterm elections of 2014, only 36 percent of Americans voted -- the worst showing in more than 70 years.

Such anemic results have resuscitated an idea that’s been put into practice in about 30 other countries: making voting a civic requirement. “It would be transformative if everybody voted,” President Obama said last year.

But even supporters of compulsory voting don’t think it’s going to happen in the U.S. The very idea of forcing people to vote seems, well, anti-democratic. What’s more, it’s a partisan issue. As Obama himself suggests, the people who tend not to vote often look like Democrats -- the poor, the young, members of minority groups. One recent study of ballot measures in Switzerland found that compulsory voting boosted the progressive position by up to 20 percentage points.

Most academic research, however, has found that mandatory voting does not move the average voter to the left, according to Jason Brennan, a professor at Georgetown University and co-author of Compulsory Voting: For and Against. “There’s a widespread belief among Democrats that compulsory voting would deliver more states to Democrats,” he says. “It turns out that’s not true. The people who vote and the people who don’t vote are roughly the same in terms of their partisan preferences.”

That doesn’t mean the population of actual voters perfectly reflects the nation as a whole. The biggest difference between voters and nonvoters is not partisan ideology but information, suggests Brennan. “The crop of people who are not voting are less informed than the people who are voting right now.”

That alone leads to conflicting opinions, even among members of the same party. Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton University, says so-called “low-information members” of the Democratic Party hold views on issues such as gay rights, military force and free trade that are the opposite of Democrats who follow policy debates more closely.

So even if partisan outcomes wouldn’t change appreciably under a mandated voting system, the political system itself would change. Supporters of compulsory voting say that would force politicians to address broader concerns, rather than appealing to narrow bases. “Ideally, a democracy will take into account the interests and views of all citizens so that its decisions represent the will of the entire people,” concludes a recent Brookings Institution paper promoting mandatory voting. “If some regularly vote while others do not, elected officials are likely to give less weight to the interests and views of nonparticipants.”

Georgetown’s Brennan is dubious that appealing to the masses will be all good, though. “Compulsory voting probably reduces the quality of government by some small amount,” he says, “because you are reducing the knowledge of the median voter.”