<< The Body Politic

Mandatory voting?

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Writing last week in Bloomberg, Peter Orszag, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration, argues that voting should be made mandatory. Using Australia as an example of a country where compulsory voting already exists, Orszag notes: “Mandating voting has a clear effect: It raises participation rates.” The United States currently has voter participation below 60 percent.

Orszag argues:

Beyond simply raising participation, compulsory voting could alter the role of money in elections. Turn-out-the-vote efforts, often bankrolled by big-money groups, would become largely irrelevant. Negative advertising could be less effective, because a central aim of such ads is to discourage participation in the opponent’s camp.

The other effects of compulsory voting are more difficult to assess and tend to divide political scientists. Some proponents, such as Galston at Brookings, argue mandating voting could help reduce political polarization because everyone would have to vote, and those who don’t vote today tend to be less polarized than those who go to the polls (this would be a good thing given the extreme levels of polarization we are now experiencing). Alan Abramowitz presents evidence favoring this in “The Disappearing Center”: Those most engaged with the political process and most likely to vote are more polarized than those disconnected from politics.

Interestingly, political science literature has historically found more modest effects on election outcomes in the U.S. from compulsory voting than one might think. Recent work by John Sides of George Washington University and colleagues is consistent with previous research by Raymond Wolfinger in finding “little evidence that increased turnout would systematically transform partisan competition or policy outcomes.” This parrots the conventional wisdom among political scientists.

On the other hand, Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler argue that over the past several decades the differences between voters and nonvoters have grown significantly larger. Research by Andrew Fowler of Harvard shows compulsory voting in Australia increased the parliament seat share of the Labor Party there by 7 percent to 9 percent, which is a big effect.

Responding to Orszag in the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg worries that making voting mandatory will cheapen the act and weaken civic virtue: “If I force you to do the right thing against your will, you don’t get credit for doing the right thing.” (Eric Liu, a former Clinton speechwriter, made a similar point about forced community service recently in Time.)

In addition to this, Goldberg is also worried that democracy might suffer by forcing uninformed citizens to vote. He continues:

[Norm] Ornstein and [Thomas] Mann suggest fining people, say $15, if they don’t vote and using the proceeds to set up a lottery to bribe reluctant voters. If the old line that lotteries are taxes on stupid people is correct, then the upshot of this proposal is that the cure to what ails democracy is an influx of large numbers of stupid voters.

Even if all the people who play the lottery aren’t stupid (I’ve bought my share of tickets), there’s still a problem. Do we really think democracy will be improved by enlisting the opinions of Americans who otherwise wouldn’t bother if there wasn’t a jackpot in the offing?

This brings us to the cynicism of it all. While many political scientists and economists hold that mandatory voting probably wouldn’t change electoral outcomes, many people still believe that compelling the poor, the uneducated and the politically unengaged would be a boon to Democrats. […]

Ornstein and Mann […] make a slightly different argument. They claim that coerced voting would revive the political center by reducing the influence of activists and ideologues.

Ultimately, this is a more sophisticated way of making the same argument. They do not like the way conservatives have been winning battles in Washington. Forcing people to vote, they hope, would put an end to that.


It’s an unfashionable thing to say, but if anything, voting should be harder, not easier. Scarcity creates value. Sand is cheap because there’s so much of it. Gold is valuable because it is rare. If you want people to value their vote, we should make it more valuable.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind tying eligibility to vote to passing the same citizenship test we require of immigrants. We might get fewer voters, but the voters would be far more likely to appreciate the solemnity of their ballots.