Indulge me in a rant against the phantom menace of voter fraud. The efforts to suppress it are barely disguised Republican moves to hold down minority votes that would, presumably, go to Democrats.
This year, the Supreme Court allowed a new Texas voter-ID law to proceed despite a lower court judge’s finding that it amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax that could disenfranchise 600,000 registered voters, about 4.5 percent of the total. This in low-turnout Texas, with voting participation rates near the bottom of a country with overall anemic turnout.
Pivot to Australia, one of 11 countries that have, and enforce, mandatory voting, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and the nation most culturally similar to the United States.
Australia adopted compulsory voting in 1924 after turnout plunged from more than 70 percent in 1919 to less than 60 percent in 1922. By contrast, recent turnout by eligible voters in U.S. presidential election years has barely cracked 60 percent; in midterm elections, it has been hovering in the low 40s.
Australians who fail to vote can be fined (or, in theory, jailed for repeated no-shows). Interestingly, the mandate to vote is overwhelmingly popular, with about three-fourths of those polled supporting the requirement.
Let me acknowledge, upfront, that the United States is not about to go the way of Australia. The same partisan forces that agitate for voter ID laws or less opportunity for early voting hours would block any change on the assumption that it would work to their electoral disadvantage.
Perhaps so, although the Australian experience does not support this belief. A 2006 analysis by the Australian Electoral Commission concluded that, “on balance, there is no empirical evidence that a move to voluntary voting would advantage one major party over another.” In practice, control has ping-ponged regularly between conservatives and liberals.
Indeed, the conventional wisdom that compulsory voting here would favor Democrats may be wrong. A study in 2003 by political scientists Jack Citrin, Eric Schickler and John Sides modeling the effects of full turnout in three cycles’ worth of Senate races found that, while “under full turnout, Democrats typically do better,” in the few cases in which the result would have changed, “the Democratic candidate was not always the beneficiary.”
So why bother?
Compulsory voting would reduce the cost of elections. Candidates, parties and outside groups would no longer have to devote resources to turning out voters — the requirement would do it for them. You might think that this would simply have the perverse effect of freeing up money to spend on ever more television advertising. Maybe, but there is only so much airtime, and only so much marginal return on advertising investment.
Some critics of compulsory voting argue that it would result in dumbed-down campaigns to appeal to an even more uninformed electorate. To which the only possible response is: Have you been watching politics recently? Indeed, since suppressing the vote by turning off voters in disgust won’t work, there is a countervailing argument that negative advertising would be reduced.
Even more important, compulsory voting would have the salutary effect of forcing parties to appeal to all voters, not just the committed base they can motivate to get to the polls. Especially combined with other reforms, such as switching to “jungle,” or top-two-vote-getter, primaries, it would drive politicians and parties toward the center and toward compromise. Special interests would hold less sway.
Compelling anything feels vaguely un-American, but turning voting into a shared national enterprise would be healthy for our democracy. This is especially true because of the gap between the voters and the population as a whole — nonvoters are more often poor, young and members of minority groups. This disconnect has policy implications. A 2005 paper for the Inter-American Development Bank that examined 91 countries from 1960 to 2000 found that strictly enforced compulsory voting improved income distribution.
A national change to compulsory voting is unthinkable, especially in a system that largely leaves voting procedures up to states. So why not, as the Brookings Institution’s William Galston has suggested, have a half-dozen or so states conduct an experiment with compulsory voting? The country has far more to fear from too few voters than from too many.