Friday, March 13, 2009

What if Voting were Mandatory?

Australia requires citizens to vote. Should the U.S.?
By Eric Weiner

…Australia, along with Belgium, is the only "mature democracy" that requires its citizens to vote and actually enforces the law. Australia is also a nation we Americans can relate to. We share similar historical narratives (outcasts fleeing Mother England), a frontier spirit, and a laid-back nature that drives Europeans nuts. So Australia makes an interesting test case for an intriguing question: Could mandatory voting work in the United States?

Australians have been required to vote in federal elections since 1924. Concerned that voter turnout had dipped below 60 percent, parliament enacted mandatory voting after only 90 minutes of debate, and it's gone largely unchallenged ever since. Polls regularly show 70 percent to 80 percent of Australians support mandatory voting. Lisa Hill, a research fellow at the University of Adelaide, explains it this way: "We're quite happy with some forms of coercion that others may not be happy with."

…Mandatory voting isn't politically neutral. It's bound to affect which parties do well at the polls and which do not. In general, political scientists believe the practice gives a slight edge (2 percent or 3 percent) to liberal parties, since presumably the poor and disenfranchised, once forced to the polls, tend to vote liberal…

So, might mandatory voting work in the United States? It's a tempting quick fix to our low levels of voter turnout. Also, imagine our political parties freed from the burden of having to energize their base. Candidates could focus on converting voters, rather than trying to get them to the polls. As for concerns that mandatory voting represents government coercion, one might argue that our government coerces its citizens to perform many duties: pay taxes, attend school, serve on juries and, in times of war, fight and die for the nation.

In the end, though, mandatory voting is extremely unlikely to work in the states. An ABC News poll conducted this past (2004) summer found that 72 percent of those surveyed oppose the idea. The results are almost identical to a similar poll conducted by Gallup 40 years ago. Why such resistance? Perhaps because we view voting as a right, not a responsibility, and nothing is likely to alter that bedrock belief.

Also, mandatory voting would probably cause a further dumbing-down of election campaigns, if such a thing is possible. Motivated by a need to attract not only undecided voters but also unwilling voters, candidates would probably resort to an even baser brand of political advertising, since they would now be trying to reach people who are voting only out of a desire to obey the law and avoid a fine.

Mandatory voting would be a nightmare to enforce and would rob us of an important barometer of public interest in politics. If everyone were required to vote, then nobody would be excited to vote.

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