The last time Americans went to the polls to pick a president, Barack Obama handily defeated his Republican challenger, John McCain, by a 53 to 46 percent vote margin. The president’s unambiguous victory, however, was marred by a troubling statistic: 43 percent of the American voting population—about ninety-seven million people—decided to stay home, a trend that has been more or less consistent since 1970.
Turnout at midterm elections is even more unsettling. For more than fifty years, no midterm contest has ever garnered a majority of the voting-age American public. Given the numbers, it’s nothing short of miraculous that there has not been a widespread loss of legitimacy among our elected officials. With the 2012 election only weeks away, and the candidates’ bases largely underwhelmed, America seems on track to continue down the path of electoral apathy.
“But what can we do?” say the pundits. “This is America. Don’t we have a right to stay home if we choose? How can it be right for the government to force you into an activity as prosaic as voting?” These and other well-worn criticisms have more or less settled the debate and snuffed out any serious public discussion about the consequences of mass electoral disengagement. The counterarguments, however, are not so Orwellian. True election reform would create a more representative and democratic system for all of us.
Almost any American would agree that voting is critical for the maintenance of a well-functioning republic. Voting confers legitimacy, which has been vital to American elected officials since the dawn of the nation. Making voting compulsory should not be compared to more mundane practices such as government mandates on buying broccoli because the latter practices are not critical functions of the state. For example, there is a difference between a man who claims a right to not eat vegetables and one who claims a “right to not pay taxes.” No one likes paying taxes; it is not voluntary because, if it were, too few people would do it, and the government would not be able to function. Proponents of voluntary voting cannot square the circle of how a duty so critical to the survival of our government should be left to whim.
Some argue that those who have no interest in voting should not cast ballots. If you do not care, you should not participate. Resting on this smug platitude may be comforting, but it does not hold up. Barack Obama and all U.S. presidents are charged with representing not just those who vote for them but all Americans. Yet as more and more people choose to abstain, elected officials rule with less and less consent, which attenuates the very fundamentals of our republic. We scoff when despots and dictators are “elected” with 99 percent of the vote, yet I find it almost as sobering that Bill Clinton became president in 1992 when more than 75 percent of the electorate did not vote for him.
What about the question of overall disenchantment? Many Americans may dislike all major candidates and prefer to abstain from voting. Given the dearth of upstanding or otherwise remarkable elected officials, we can hardly blame anyone for this sentiment, and coercing any American to vote for a candidate he or she despises would make a mockery of the system. Write-in vote options are notoriously cumbersome and increasingly a relic in the age of electronic ballots. Any scheme for compulsory voting must unequivocally protect the right to say no.
Nevada offers an interesting solution: in 1975, facing unprecedented voter disgust over Watergate, Nevada became the only state in America to include a “none of these candidates” option alongside the major parties. And while it was a step in the right direction, the initiative was nonbinding and toothless. In the 1976 Republican Congressional primary, “none of these candidates” trounced its competitors, and yet, despite the abjectly clear will of the voters, the nomination went to the nearest runner-up (who, perhaps unsurprisingly, went on to lose to the Democratic incumbent). For compulsory voting to be viable, the public must be given a full complement of options. All states should present voters with the option of “none of these candidates,” and should require the parties to field new candidates in another round, should that be the will of the people.
As of 2012, dozens of nations on almost every continent employ a system of compulsory voting. They include democratic nations such as Belgium, Luxembourg and Australia. Australia, it should be noted, has often been ahead of the curve when it comes to democracy. The country was one of the first to adopt the now-ubiquitous secret ballot in 1856, a full thirty years before it would become common in the United States. And for the history buffs, compulsory voting has not been completely alien to American soil either. Georgia, despite its later legacy of slavery, segregation and voter intimidation, mandated in its 1777 constitution that any citizen who neglected to vote would be subject to “a penalty not exceeding five pounds.”
At the time of the American Revolution, voting was limited to landed white men. As Harvard professor and historian Alexander Keyssar pointed out in his book Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, the overwhelming trend since then has been one toward greater inclusion and representation. Seen in this light, a policy mandating our civic duty is not an aberration of fundamental liberties. It is merely part of their continuing evolution.
Jonathan Levine is a lecturer of American Studies and English at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group. You can follow him on Twitter at @LevineJonathan.