For decades, the United States has had voting turnout much lower than in most other developed nations. Between 50 and 60 percent of Americans tend to show up for presidential elections, and turnout often falls below 40 percent in midterm votes. The last midterms in 2014 were marked by particularly low participation, with a turnout of only 36.7 percent.
There are some indications that this year’s turnout will be higher, probably driven up by deepened polarization that tends to mobilize voters.
But it is still likely that nonvoters will once again outnumber voters.
Meanwhile, Belgium, Turkey and Australia have all had turnout rates of more than 80 percent in recent years. And while turnout can also be boosted by holding elections on weekends or automatically registering eligible voters, those three nations have something else in common: They have mandatory-voting laws.
While mandatory-voting laws might be more symbolic in some nations, a lesson that is frequently echoed in all those countries is that higher turnouts also have a broader stimulating impact on political participation.
Although Switzerland has no national legislation that forces citizens to vote, at least one region, or canton, requires residents to regularly head to the polls. Officials there say the law has resulted in more diverse and more active political debate, too.
“The advantage of compulsory voting is that it is a gentle way of putting pressure on citizens to get more involved in political issues,” senior regional official Stefan Bilger told Swiss public television during elections in 2014. And that’s despite the fact that the canton’s procedures are relatively lax compared to those in some other countries. If you are ill or out of town, you probably won’t face a fine.
In Australia, meanwhile, not casting your ballot and refusing to pay a fine can land you in court.
In some of those nations, making voting a strictly enforced assignment rather than a right has historical origins. In Belgium and Australia, for example, requirements were introduced by parties weary of better-funded opponents that appeared more successful at mobilizing voters. Mandatory voting was a way to limit the influence of groups that may not represent the majority but were disproportionately well-organized.
Similar arguments led to the introduction of mandatory-voting laws in Latin America, where enforcement differs widely. Some nations enforce the laws by threatening civil servants with work bans or banking customers with transaction restrictions. In other places, punishments for failing to show up to vote exist only on paper.
Not everyone is sad about that. “Opponents of compulsory voting often contend that the country may be better off if those who are disinclined to vote are not pushed to participate in public affairs,” University of Georgia researcher Shane P. Singh wrote in a recent analysis.
At least in Europe, the introduction of more compulsory-voting laws would probably benefit some political parties more than others. When ETH Zurich researchers examined the impact of compulsory voting in federal referendums, they were correct in anticipating a massive increase in participation — but with it also came more support for policies backed by left-wing candidates.
“The increase in turnout resulted in a 20 percent increase in electoral support for leftist policy positions, most likely by mobilizing citizens at the bottom of the income distribution,” the researchers concluded, based on historical data. (Overall, turnout increased by 30 percent.)
“After compulsory voting was abolished, increases in turnout and related forms [of] political participation both vanished immediately,” they added.
The exact electoral impact may vary among nations, of course, as right-wing candidates may back positions often more associated with left-wing candidates, for instance. But the Swiss researchers' broader finding — that mandatory voting mobilizes groups of voters who would not otherwise cast their ballots — can be both exciting and disconcerting, depending on whom you support.
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