<< The Body Politic

Making voting mandatory?

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Over the weekend, William Galston of the Brookings Institution penned a conversation-starting op-ed in the New York Times.

The gist of the thought experiment is this: What would happen if we in the United States made voting mandatory–like jury duty? Australia, along with 30 other countries, has mandatory voting laws, and this has caused voting turnout-rates to stabilize at around 95 percent.

Galston offers three reasons for enacting such a law: 1) It would create stronger citizens, who recognize that citizenship comes with both rights and duties; 2) it would provide representation for those citizens who currently vote at disproportionate levels, such as those with lower incomes and education levels; and 3) it would work to negate the increasing polarization of politics by catering to the middle:

Imagine our politics with laws and civic norms that yield near-universal voting. Campaigns could devote far less money to costly, labor-intensive get-out-the-vote efforts. Media gurus wouldn’t have the same incentive to drive down turnout with negative advertising. Candidates would know that they must do more than mobilize their bases with red-meat rhetoric on hot-button issues. Such a system would improve not only electoral politics but also the legislative process. Rather than focusing on symbolic gestures whose major purpose is to agitate partisans, Congress might actually roll up its sleeves and tackle the serious, complex issues it ignores.


We don’t know what the outcome would be. But one thing is clear: If we do nothing and allow a politics of passion to define the bounds of the electorate, as it has for much of the last four decades, the prospect for a less polarized, more effective political system that enjoys the trust and confidence of the people is not bright.

It’s an interesting and unconventional argument, but one worthy of thought and discussion. How do we increase and strengthen Americans’ civic responsibilities?