Decades ago while traveling in Australia, it seemed to me to be quite the freest of places. [There is nothing measured, nor scientific, in that observation.] The further north we drove, the more we felt we had entered “the wild west” of America’s frontier days. Of course, we were hurtling along on largely deserted roads. The greatest danger was the possibility of a kangaroo hopping in front of the car. For the most part, speed limits felt superfluous.
Although driving on the left side of the road in a car equipped with right-hand steering felt preternaturally normal to me, a lifetime lefty, I still occasionally had trouble with left-hand turns, turning into the far, instead of the near, lane. Repeatedly, police pulled us over, chastised us, expressed concern, and always wished us a final “G’day.” Evenings, in some restaurants, we observed drunken louts devolve verbal slurs into messy fisticuffs. All this to say, the country seemed extraordinarily open to individual whims.That’s why I was amazed to learn recently that Australia has mandatory voting and enrolls all eligible adults at age eighteen. It seems oddly un-Australian, not at all in line with my memories of that zany place. It feels left-handed in an upside down sort of way!
However, it got me thinking about how many articles and opinions I have read recently on current voter suppression efforts in the United States of America. What if we flipped our American world upside down and made voting compulsory here? Would it drive people into a paroxysm of proclaiming their rights were being denied? Would they feel their freedom was at risk? Would the State be viewed as unduly oppressive?
Attending school is mandatory. Seat belt use is mandatory. Motorcycle helmets are mandatory in many states. Jury duty is compulsory. Vaccines are mandatory. Age limits are specified for driving and voting. Taxes are certainly compulsory! At one time, military conscription was mandatory here. So what would happen if we made voting mandatory? Would it be a violation of free speech? Clearly, the law would have to grapple with and prescribe permissible reasons for some citizens not to vote.
Ideally, every citizen should feel a duty to participate in decision making; but realistically some would balk. Therefore, if participation were enforced, some consequence would be sought. Community service? A ticket? A fine? Jail time? Some social disgrace? Denial of passport? Denial of some government service? Increased taxation? Instead of thinking about non-compliance first though, let’s consider some potential positive outcomes.
Democracies should take into account the interests and views of all citizens. Political scientists argue that citizens with lower levels of income and education are less likely to vote, as are young adults and recent first-generation immigrants. Therefore, their needs and concerns can more easily be ignored by politicians. By enhancing inclusiveness, compulsory voting could potentially level the influence-playing fields among citizens of differing incomes, educations and ages.
If citizens are weak, their democracy cannot be strong. In recent years, Americans have become increasingly vocal about their rights and increasingly hushed about acknowledging their civic responsibilities. Perhaps being a citizen simply requires too little of us!
Changes in our political system have magnified disparities. Mid-twentieth century political machines connected citizens with neighborhood institutions and gave them a sense of significant political participation. Organized labor echoed this. This sort of mobilization has largely evaporated. Mandatory voting might re-energize the electorate.
Requiring people to vote in national elections once every two years could reinforce pride in a representative form of government through civic participation. Increasing levels of participation would stimulate civic-and-political education leading to a better informed citizenry.
Mandatory voting would protect the disenfranchised from voter suppression efforts. Everyone would be assured access to voting.
Victorious national candidates would be elected by a majority of the population and claim more legitimacy than those of non-compulsory systems with substantially lower voter turnouts. Compulsory voting would reflect the “will of the people.”
Australia went from a voter turnout under sixty percent to over ninety percent the first year their compulsory-voting law went into effect. Now it hovers around ninety-five percent! Australians report that voting is now perceived as a civic obligation. Clearly, their law altered civic norms, no small feat in a country that prides itself on nurturing citizens that are feisty and rambunctious. Also, polarization has eased while trust in governmental institutions has been enhanced.