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The case for mandatory universal voting

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While commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday voting rights march in Selma, Ala., President Obama contrasted the historic achievement of the civil rights movement with the low turnout rates characteristic of American elections. “What’s our excuse today for not voting?” he asked. That same year, he floated a solution: mandatory universal voting. If all Americans were asked to show up to the polls on Election Day, the effects on representation and civic culture could be “transformative.” Unsurprisingly, the proposal went nowhere — compulsory voting is, and has long been, unpalatable to Americans. Criticism, particularly from the right, was swift and vehement.

But in the seven years since Obama asked how Americans so “casually discard the right for which so many fought,” the world has changed. Republicans and Democrats at the state level are reworking voting rules and procedures. Since 2020, 19 states have passed laws making it harder to vote, largely in response to the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Twenty-five other states have passed laws expanding voting access, largely in response to heroic efforts to carry out an election under conditions of a global pandemic. Underlying these differing trajectories are fundamental disagreements about what democracy means and how we, as citizens, value participation.

Democracy requires free and fair elections, which are now under threat after the disputed election of 2020. In their new book, E.J. Dionne Jr. and Miles Rapoport offer a solution that has the potential to achieve, as the title suggests, “100% Democracy.” That solution is universal civic duty voting: a formalization of the moral duty to participate in elections. Unlike many other political changes that have been advocated, such as those in President Biden’s failed Freedom to Vote Act, Dionne and Rapoport’s solution does not rely on institutional or technical fixes. Theirs is a wholesale rethinking of the American electorate’s relationship to elections.

The authors envision a democracy that is more representative and less cynical; universal voting, they argue, would obviate the cycle of voting rights expansion-retrenchment to which Americans have (unfortunately) become so accustomed. The U.S. Constitution does not protect the right to vote. Instead, it protects citizens from infringement of the right to vote. The distinction may sound trivial, but in many other countries, the state must proactively make it easy for citizens to vote. In the United States, on the other hand, citizens take on much of the responsibility of voting and cannot easily seek redress from the state when new burdens are enacted.

Taking the step of creating an obligation to vote could “vindicate the liberating purposes of the 1965 [voting rights] law and the rights guaranteed in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution.” Efforts to suppress or subvert votes would largely be rendered irrelevant. Nonvoters, who tend to be more cynical about politics, would become more invested in democracy. Candidates and media consultants would need to make broader appeals in their campaigns.

Dionne and Rapoport’s call for universal voting is undergirded by optimism, urgency and a bit of naivete — the sort welcome in a genre that is otherwise bleak. “100% Democracy” argues that we are in a time of democratic renewal, based on the surge in voting in 2020. American turnout rates are usually low: Since the 1960s, they’ve hovered at about 50 percent of the voting-eligible population. The turnout of 2020 was 67 percent, the highest in 120 years. States made it easier for voters to cast ballots by allowing online registration and no-excuse absentee voting, expanding the window to vote, and setting up ballot dropboxes. Election administrators, Congress, corporations, activists and the media came together to encourage safe voting amid a global pandemic. This, the authors argue, should be the norm in our elections.

The main problem that universal civic duty voting solves is the problem of low turnout. Dionne and Rapoport note that people who vote are Whiter, older and more educated than the overall population. When voting is more accessible, the electorate becomes more representative. Further, universal voting would not clearly benefit one party over the other. Instead, it would increase the overall competitiveness of elections. Virginia, for example, expanded voting access after 2018, and Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated the former Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, in 2021. Republican candidates in down-ballot races also did well in 2020, when voting access expanded during the pandemic.

How would universal civic duty voting work in practice? The authors devote a great deal of attention to Australia, which implemented mandatory voting in 1924. All citizens older than 18 must register to vote in Australia, which they can do online or at the post office. Elections are held every three years, on Saturdays. Australians must present themselves at the polls or face a fine (about $14), although they can also provide “valid and sufficient” reasons for not voting that include travel, illness and religious objection. Turnout rates are higher than 90 percent, and Australians take pride in voting — they even have barbecues on election day.

After reviewing the two dozen or so other countries with some form of mandatory voting and detailing the constitutional protections on various forms of speech, Dionne and Rapoport suggest that universal voting in the United States could work much as it does in Australia. Citizens would all be expected to check in at a polling station on Election Day but would not be forced to cast a ballot; they could also mail in blank ballots. They would face a small fine (or, in the early rollout phase, a warning) for not voting. The government would need to make registration and voting easier across the board. The book’s appendix includes a universal civic duty voting bill that was introduced in the Connecticut legislature in 2021; universal voting would probably start with localities and states, rather than as national policy.

Dionne and Rapoport also respond to criticisms of universal voting, using survey data to show that most Americans think of voting as both a right and a duty — and pointing out that Americans accept jury duty and the Selective Service as obligations. Further, the authors argue that although it may be democratic to protect the right not to vote, it is just as democratic to believe in full participation. After all, the government makes decisions that affect all people; why should the government be selected by only part of the citizenry? Dionne and Rapoport dismiss the cringeworthy arguments that voters are too ignorant to participate or that voting shouldn’t be as easy as “ordering Chinese takeout.” They point to the nation’s brutal history of voter suppression and Jim Crow, and the myriad ways anti-democratic politicians have sought to limit the franchise through history.

And they are realistic about the difficulty of implementing universal voting. The 2020 election required significant government expenditures, additional volunteer poll workers and help from private donors and foundations. Dionne and Rapoport hope that universal civic duty voting would create the impetus for local, state and federal governments to shore up election infrastructure. They would need to keep voter rolls up to date and make voting widely accessible. However, it seems just as likely that the rollout of universal voting would be marred by delays and biases in enforcement. The authors are not unaware of these risks and presume that gateway reforms (such as all-mail voting and same-day registration) would need to accompany universal voting.

It is also unclear how universal civic duty voting might affect other (problematic) aspects of our politics — gerrymandering, malapportionment, campaign finance. There are a host of alternative institutional and regulatory arrangements that create better democratic outcomes outside the United States. Universal voting would help increase turnout, but it would be unlikely to curb the influence of well-heeled donors or rectify the counter-majoritarian features of our national institutions.

Ultimately, “100% Democracy” is more manifesto than playbook. Dionne and Rapoport want us to think big, to envision a world where voting is easy and routine. They imagine a future built on civic participation and pride, rather than one built on democratic subversion. Theirs is a compelling case for a radical idea, one that might even have deep skeptics shrugging and asking, why not?

Didi Kuo is a senior research scholar and associate director at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

100% Democracy

The Case for Universal Voting

By E.J. Dionne Jr. and Miles Rapoport

The New Press. 186 pp. $24.99