Nov 16

America Needs Compulsory Voting

In Brief—Want a recipe for renewed democracy? Institute Compulsory Voting, dump the outmoded 18th Century artifact called the Electoral College, and institute a Ranked File Voting system. Add some enthusiasm and activism. Shake the rancid status quo and you have a renewed America.


A Way to Overcome American Decline—

“Aw, Hell’s Bells, they’ve done it again,” says Joe Average, a potential voter. “They’ve picked Abbie Able and Bryson Baker of the two major parties to face off in the presidential election. They shut out my choice, Delia Davis, of the Earth Party and Elton Earnest of the Universalist Party, both legitimate Third Party candidates, with their undemocratic maneuvering. I might as well not vote.”

That fictional gripe illustrates the situation that exists today in America. The best example of just how outmoded the Electoral College is can be seen in the fact that Al Gore received more votes than George W. Bush and yet Bush became the president. We know where that went. Third Party candidates never have a chance because the two major parties not only conspire to exclude them, but a vote for a Third Party candidate is for all practical purposes a wasted vote.

As if that weren’t enough, because there is no Compulsory Vote in America, as there is in Australia and twenty-one other countries, Joe and too many like-minded eligible potential voters can stay home on election day as has happened in the 2014 general election that set a new record for non-participation. Is any of this right? More to the point, is any of this even sensible?

But This is About Compulsory Voting—

In recent pieces, I have pointed out the undemocratic flaws with the two-party system and the outmoded Electoral College. See my pieces The Tyranny of the Two-Party System and The Thievery of the Electoral College. Today, thanks to an aware and perceptive reader, we will take a look at the pluses to be derived from a system of Compulsory Voting.

First, some uncomfortable facts. America has one of the worst voting turnouts in the world. At 50%, and sometimes less, as happened recently, the turnout for presidential elections (and even the Midterms) is deplorable and that’s thanks to the outmoded Electoral College and the undemocratic actions of the two major parties. If there were Compulsory Voting as well as Ranked File Voting, America’s voting turnout would not only rise sharply as could be expected but, more importantly, America could be more democratic.

Compulsory Voting Defined—

So what is Compulsory Voting? Basically, it means that all citizens 18 years of age and older are required to vote or at least go through the motions at all elections. Registration is automatic at age 18. Failure to vote can result in a fine or mandatory community service. Exemptions can be given for those of unsound mind, debilitating illness or prisoners who have not paid their debt to society.

Since people are mobile, why confine voting to a polling place? A trustworthy electronic data base of all eligible voters created at the time of registration and assurance that the data are accurate would make voting easier and doable for those unable to make it to a voting place. Translated this means that computers and mobile phones would allow voters to vote. Note please that I said assurance of trustworthiness is a necessary element. These days, this can be easily accomplished.

Argument AGAINST Compulsory Voting—

What are the key arguments AGAINST compulsory voting. 1) Probably the biggest is “freedom.” Opponents claim that they should be free to refuse to vote, that compulsion is a violation of their right to personal freedom. 2) Another objection is that the electorate may be too ignorant or uninterested to cast a meaningful ballot. 3) Another is that candidates need not waste time with all voters but can concentrate on those in the “swing states.” 4) Another objection is that some ballots will be unmarked, that is, that the voter leaves his/her ballot blank thereby rendering the vote questionable.

Argument FOR Compulsory Voting (My Position)—

On the other hand, what are the key arguments FOR compulsory voting? 1) Like jury duty and taxation, voting is a civic duty that strengthens democracy. Remember that “freedom” is not free, it must be defended. 2) The total electorate is taken into consideration not merely the charged-up, single-issue voter. 3) The voter is more likely to inform himself/herself about the candidates and issues to be decided. 4) Candidates will be required to appeal to all the voters not just those in “swing states.” 5) The voter can be assured that her/his vote will be counted. 6) A box labeled “None Of The Above” permits the disgruntled voter to register his/her disapproval of the listed candidates and avoids any confusion that might arise out of a blank ballot.

Now, put together Compulsory Voting, dump the outmoded Electoral College and institute Ranked File Voting which will allow all the candidates an equal chance, and potential voters have a solid reason to vote. Pass all these and you will see a surge in interest in voting as happened in Australia. Every vote will count.

We have just survived a Midterm election in which the pundits and the statistics underline the depths to which America has sunk. This election may set a new record for absenteeism. It’s estimated that only about 40% of eligible voters bothered to vote. This means that almost two-thirds of eligible voters stayed home allowing the few who voted to determine how the country would be run until the next presidential election in 2016.

Some pundits say that the voters and stay-at-homes have sent a message to the politicians reflecting dissatisfaction with America’s political dysfunction. A much stronger message would be registered if America had Compulsory Voting with a checked box on the ballot saying “NONE OF THE ABOVE.” That is an explicit message reflecting dissatisfaction.

What are you waiting for? Get active and make some positive changes that will inject vibrancy into the body politic. Restore genuine democracy in America.


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  1. Let me say that I agree wholeheartedly with your piece Don. I doubt you’ll find that surprising. But let me add a bit from my point of view.
    First, anyone who fails to vote has NO right to criticizes the government that we have at any level. In fact, if there was a way to enforce it, I believe it should be a misdemeanor to complain out loud if you haven’t voted…. 😉
    Second, It’s against the law to walk around in public without cloths, it’s mandatory to have automobile insurance and a drivers license, it’s now mandated to have health insurance, you can’t scream fire in a theater, you must file income tax, and so on. So the arguments AGAINST compulsory voting don’t hold water.
    And here’s a possible additional reason to consider compulsory voting: Why not have a brief questionnaire at the bottom of the ballot at every other four year presidential election that effectively negates the need for separate census taking? Two birds with one stone…No? My guess is that would save more than a few $$$…. Just thinking out loud here.
    At any rate, mandatory voting with a ‘Non of the above’ box, makes perfect sense to me. And third-party candidates that can qualify for the ballot should be included, although, I’m not sure what sort of qualification process would keep out the not-really-serious and the Tin Foil Hat party.

      • Don Bay on November 17, 2014 at 18:29

      Not only is Compulsory Voting essential but we need to get Big Money out of politics. Since the Supreme Court conservatives have put their partisan thumb on the scales with the Citizens United case and its progeny, Big Money is now constitutional and equates money with speech. The conservatives knew exactly what they were doing and the Republicans are now set to control the national agenda. As Linda Greenhouse of the Times has described them, the Supreme Court conservatives are now politicians in robes.

      That said—and Big Money’s a big problem—Compulsory Voting will energize the American electorate which just set the low mark for voting participation. Let there be no doubt, however, the conservatives in the American electorate will squawk like a mashed hen at the thought of being required to vote. Supporters of Compulsory Voting will have to work hard to correct this flagrant non-participation situation.

      Inasmuch as America is a technological society, it’s entirely within reach to set up a workable national data base of all births and deaths that would serve as a census data base as well as in registration for voting. Thus, your suggestion for a ten-year census taking may not be necessary.

      I am worried, however, at the ease of hacking into voting machines and changing votes—as happened with some frequency in the recent Midterm elections—thereby permitting interested parties to change the results.Though I have spoken of America being a technological society, the only answer I see to this hacking problem is returning to the paper ballot that must be counted by hand. It works in Sweden, so it should work in the U.S. Suggestions are welcome here.

  2. I agree both with Don’s arguments and those of Dave Meyers. And thanks, Don, for clarifying the issues and how compulsory voting works. Americans should be embarrassed at the voting turnouts and this could raise foreign approval of our elections and also the results. Many people in other countries recognize that election results don’t currently reflect the wishes of many Americans, and given the effect on other countries of these elections there could be renewed respect for the outcomes.
    One downside is that, as you note, some Americans may not bother to be informed about issues and candidates. I would be concerned that there would be a strong element of randomness because of this factor.
    All in all, though, this seems like a very good idea, particularly elimination of the electoral college.

      • Don Bay on November 17, 2014 at 19:11

      Compulsory Voting would certainly eliminate America’s deplorable rate of non-participation (40% or even less overall in the recent Midterms), but first we have to figure out a constitutional way to get the malign influence of Big Money out of American politics. Otherwise, Big Money will simply control a bigger pie. There’s a move afoot to create a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. Good luck with that. No way that’s going to happen.

      My current thinking is that if they want to contribute, the billionaires like the Koch brothers and the big political action committees will be forced to put their money into a pot administered by an independent organization in much the same way that redistricting in some states is carried out by an independent group free of partisan tinkering. Unfortunately, the Republicans in control will rebel (so what’s new?) and refuse any sort of independence. They are interested in dominating as we can see from stepped-up efforts now being made at the state level. Returning to my thinking, the money in the pot will be distributed equally to qualifying candidates thereby ensuring fairness. However, as I’ve often said, If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Face facts: the Big Money folks would simply refuse to take part. Ain’t idealism wonderful!

      Still, Compulsory Voting is a good idea as is Ranked File Voting, but first, we have to get the influence of Big Money out of the picture. Any suggestions on this?

    • Donna on November 22, 2014 at 23:59

    How does Australia and other countries enforce this? sounds really difficult to me. I like your idea of putting “none of the above” on the ballot. That way, if the voter dislikes all of the candidates, they can indicate that. Instead of forcing every voter to vote, conservatives are trying to get fewer voters to vote. It would be difficult to get compulsory voting into law.

      • Don Bay on November 23, 2014 at 22:24

      As I understand it, enforcement with a fine still takes place in Australia, but the fines are often not collected. Still, while the law remains in effect, some non-voters simply don’t pay and, as far as I can tell, the state does not push to collect the assessed fines. A number of nations have Compulsory Voting laws, but the laws have no enforcement mechanism.

      The suggestion of “None of the Above” gets a unanimous thumbs-up from all those who contacted me, whether officially or privately. It allows the voter to register disapproval with the candidates listed, but not necessarily with the functioning or non-functioning of the government such as we see in the United States. That said, the “None of the Above” certainly suggests that the voter is dissatisfied with the selection and therefore the government. America should have had that on the ballots, and the Republicans would not be justified in crowing so loudly.

      Based on what I read and the first paragraph about Australian enforcement, it’s fair to guess that it would be well nigh impossible to pass Compulsory Voting into law. Given the general public’s support for “tradition,” whether it’s rational or not, it’s a good guess that it would get voted down, at least in the United States. In fact, I am inclined to believe that most of the humans in the world are not terribly rational. Still, in light of the lousy record for voting in America, Compulsory Voting is a good idea.

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