The following is the preamble to “Lift Every Voice: The Urgency of Universal Civic Duty Voting,” a report from the Working Group on Universal Voting convened by The Brookings Institution and The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School. Download the full PDF report here.
Imagine an American democracy remade by its citizens in the very image of its promise, a society where the election system is designed to allow citizens to perform their most basic civic duty with ease. Imagine that all could vote without obstruction or suppression. Imagine Americans who now solemnly accept their responsibilities to sit on juries and to defend our country in a time of war taking their obligations to the work of self-government just as seriously. Imagine elections in which 80 percent or more of our people cast their ballots—broad participation in our great democratic undertaking by citizens of every race, heritage and class, by those with strongly-held ideological beliefs, and those with more moderate or less settled views. And imagine how all of this could instill confidence in our capacity for common action.
This report is offered with these aspirations in mind and is rooted in the history of American movements to expand voting rights. Our purpose is to propose universal civic duty voting as an indispensable and transformative step toward full electoral participation. Our nation’s current crisis of governance has focused unprecedented public attention on intolerable inequities and demands that Americans think boldly and consider reforms that until now seemed beyond our reach.
“Our purpose is to propose universal civic duty voting as an indispensable and transformative step toward full electoral participation.”
We see voting as a civic responsibility no less important than jury duty. If every American citizen is required to participate as a matter of civic duty, the representativeness of our elections would increase significantly and those those responsible for organizing elections will be required to resist all efforts at voter suppression and remove barriers to the ballot box. Civic duty voting would necessarily be accompanied by a variety of legislative and administrative changes aimed at making it easier for citizens to meet their obligation to participate in the enterprise of self-rule.
Our intervention reflects a sense of alarm and moral urgency, but also a spirit of hope and patriotism. Members of our working group undertook this work to fight back against legal assaults on voting rights guarantees and the proliferation of new techniques and laws to keep citizens from casting ballots. We did so mindful of the public’s declining trust in our democratic institutions. We joined together to end a vicious cycle in which declining trust breeds citizen withdrawal which, in turn, only further increases the sense of distance between citizens and our governing institutions.
It would, however, be a great mistake to see only negative portents in our current situation. If some states have engaged in voter suppression, others have enhanced voting rights through automatic voter registration, same day voting, increased opportunities for early voting, and mail ballots. These reforms have had a measurable and positive impact on participation—and enjoyed enthusiastic citizen support.
Our nation’s struggle to realize the fullness of the franchise began in the battles for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution after the Civil War that constituted our nation’s Second Founding.1 It continued with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Native Americans were not granted full citizenship until the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924 and were not fully granted voting rights until Utah did so in 1962, the last state to formally guarantee the franchise to indigenous peoples. Nearly a decade later, amidst the Vietnam War in which the youngest Americans were drafted but could not vote, the 26th Amendment extended the franchise to 18-year-olds.
In calling for what has been known as mandatory attendance at the polls (the phrase makes clear that no citizen would be forced to vote for anyone against his or her will), and might now, with the spread of mail voting, be called mandatory participation in elections, we hope to underscore that rights and duties are intimately related. During Reconstruction and the Civil Rights eras, few reforms were more important or more empowering than the right of Black Americans to sit on juries. They demanded that they be included in the pool of those who might be required to sit through trials because their own liberties depended upon being included in the process of judging whether a fellow citizen would be jailed, fined, or set free. In the case of jury service, the right and the duty are one in the same. The same can be said of voting. The franchise, said a voting rights advocate of the Reconstruction era, is “an essential and inseparable part of self-government, and therefore natural and inalienable.” W.E.B. Du Bois saw voting as central to the larger aspiration of being treated as an equal, “a co-worker in the kingdom of culture.”2
We also believe our proposals would pass constitutional scrutiny. Our report includes a careful and detailed legal analysis because the issue of the constitutionality has regularly arisen in debates over the idea. Knowing that it would face legal challenge if adopted, we examine the constitutional implications of various implementation and enforcement policies at every level of government. Universal civic duty voting, we argue, should survive legal challenges. It is consistent with our Constitution’s guarantees of free speech, robust forms of collective action, and effective government.
“A large majority of Americans share our view that voting is both a right and a duty.”
In the course of our report, we present public opinion data, gathered explicitly for this study by the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project. We freely acknowledge that—for now—there is far more opposition than support for the idea of requiring everyone to vote. At the same time, a large majority of Americans share our view that voting is both a right and a duty. Our conclusion from the data is that while nearly two-thirds of Americans oppose mandatory electoral participation, about half the country is at least open to persuasion, a significant opening for a novel concept that has never been advanced in an organized and energetic way. To begin this process, this report seeks to answer legitimate criticisms and practical objections. We propose, for example, that all who have a conscientious objection to voting and all who present any reasonable excuse for not doing so would be exempted from the obligation and any penalty. Voters would be free to return a blank or spoiled ballot, and a ‘None of the Above’ option would also be included.
We also address equity concerns related to penalties. Even small fines could be discriminatory against poor people, and immigrants’ rights activists raise legitimate concerns that inadvertent voting by noncitizens could subject them to unfair penalties. These concerns shaped our recommendations which make clear that the fine for not voting be very small and be set aside for those willing to meet a very modest community service requirement. The fine would be limited to no more than $20, it could not be compounded over time, nor would civil or criminal penalties be imposed for not paying the fine. If the experience in Australia and other nations with versions of compulsory voting can be taken as a guide, most nonvoters would never face a fine. We also detail protections for noncitizens to prevent exploitation of the system by public officials hostile to immigrants.
Our emphasis is not on imposing sanctions but on sending a strong message that voting is a legitimate expectation of citizenship. Nations that have embraced carefully implemented versions of universal civic duty voting have enjoyed dramatic increases in participation. “Compulsory voting makes democracy work better,” concluded Lisa Hill of the University of Adelaide, “enabling it to function as a social activity engaged in by all affected interests, not just a privileged elite.”3
“Nations that have embraced carefully implemented versions of universal civic duty voting have enjoyed dramatic increases in participation.”
The country’s politics typically places the interests of older Americans over the interests of the younger generations—which, by definition, makes our system less forward-looking. This problem is aggravated by the under-representation of the young in the voting process. Their participation is held down by rules and requirements that are easier for older and more geographically settled Americans to follow and to meet. As part of our proposal to declare that all adults are required to vote, we propose many ideas, beginning with election day registration and an expansion of voting opportunities, that would welcome the young into full participation. Since the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is placing particular burdens on young Americans, especially those just entering the workforce, their engagement in the democratic project is more vital than ever.
Universal civic duty voting would also help ensure increased political participation in communities of color that have long confronted exclusion from our democracy. With the reforms that would necessarily accompany it, civic duty voting would permanently block voter suppression measures. The reprehensible police killing of George Floyd shocked the conscience of the nation and forced its attention to entrenched racial injustice. Floyd’s death, and those of Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor, called forth large-scale protests around the country against police violence that has long been an enraging fact-of-life in Black neighborhoods. The new movement is demanding a thoroughgoing overhaul of policing but also a larger confrontation with racism. The demand for equal treatment has been reinforced by unequal suffering during a pandemic whose costs to health, life, and economic well-being have been borne disproportionately by communities of color. Voting rights, equal participation, and an end to exclusion from the tables of power are essential not only for securing reform, but also for creating the democratic conditions that would make social change durable. Police brutality, as an expression of systemic racism, is not merely about how Americans are policed but whose voices are heard on policing. Universal voting could amplify long voter-suppressed voices so that long-denied solutions to systemic racism are represented in the voting booth and enacted in legislatures.
“Universal civic duty voting would also help ensure increased political participation in communities of color that have long confronted exclusion from our democracy.”
“Give us the ballot,” Martin Luther King Jr. declared in 1957, “and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.”4 As our nation opens its mind and its heart to forms of social reconstruction that were far removed from the public agenda only months ago, we believe that transformative adjustments to our voting system are now in order.
The new activism points to the need for a renewed civic life, and universal voting would assist in its rebirth. Citizens, political campaigns and civil rights and community organizations could move resources now spent on protecting the right to vote and increasing voter turnout to the task of persuading and educating citizens. Media consultants would no longer have an incentive to drive down the other side’s turnout, which only increases the already powerful forces working to make our campaigns highly negative in character. Candidates would be pushed to appeal beyond their own voter bases. This imperative would raise the political costs of invoking divisive rhetoric and vilifying particular groups. Low turnout is aggravated by the hyper-polarization in our political life that is so widely and routinely denounced. Intense partisans are drawn to the polls while those who are less ideologically committed and less fervent about specific issues are more likely to stay away. Of course, democratic politics will always involve clashes of interests and battles between competing, deeply held worldviews. But by magnifying the importance of persuasion, universal voting could begin to alter the tenor of our campaigns and encourage a politics that places greater stress on dialogue, empathy, and the common good.5 And some citizens, initially empowered by their votes, would be drawn to deepen their participation in other aspects of civic life.
To say that everyone should vote is the surest guarantee that everyone will be enabled to vote. Stressing the obligation to participate will, we believe, expand the freedom to participate. As we will detail in these pages, civic duty voting must be accompanied by other voting reforms. They include automatic voter registration at state agencies; restoration of voting rights for citizens with felony convictions; early voting; expanded mail-in voting; and no-excuse absentee voting.
But we also need to recognize the disparities in American society that affect participation. This has been put in sharp focus in the 2020 primaries. The high turnout and willingness of voters to adapt to the changes in elections in the face of the pandemic deserves to be celebrated. But we must also recognize that barriers to voting were often concentrated in lower income and Black or Latinx communities, where turnout was suppressed by dramatically curtailed opportunities for in-person voting and distrust of voting by mail. “Long lines are voter suppression in action,” election lawyer Marc Elias observed—one reason the 2014 bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration insisted that no voter should have to wait more than 30 minutes to cast a ballot.6
And while the polemics around easier voting have often taken on a partisan cast—the recriminations around the April 2020 primary and State Supreme Court election in Wisconsin in the midst of the pandemic are an unfortunate example—we would note that a number of Republican secretaries of state and many conservatives support mail ballots and other reforms to ease access to voting. Writing in National Review in support of broad participation through no-excuse absentee and drive-through voting during the pandemic, Rachel Kleinfeld and Joshua Kleinfeld warned: “The United States is already at high levels of polarization and historically low levels of trust in government and fellow citizens. We cannot afford an election our people don’t believe in.”7 This captures the spirit behind our proposals.
“[Civic duty voting is] a full embrace of democracy: It insists that every citizen has a role to play in our nation’s public life and in constructing our future.”
Essential as these various enhancements and repairs to our system are, we believe that civic duty voting itself is the necessary prod to the changes we need because it would clarify the priorities of election officials at every point in the process: Their primary task is to allow citizens to embrace their duties, not to block their participation. We see it as a message to political leaders: It will encourage them to understand that their obligations extend to all Americans, not just to those they deem to be “likely voters.” And we see it as a full embrace of democracy: It insists that every citizen has a role to play in our nation’s public life and in constructing our future.
Our hope is that this report will spur national discussion in two spheres: the need to make our system more voter-friendly, and the obligation of citizens themselves to embrace the tasks of self-government. Ultimately, we hope our country as a whole can embrace this idea as a decisive step in our long struggle to ensure that all Americans are included in our Constitution’s most resonant phrase, “We, the people.”
This report was authored by the Universal Voting Working Group. The members of our Working Group have participated in meetings, conference calls, drafting, and editing in an 18-month path to this final report. While we may not all agree on every word in the report or every item in the recommendations section, we are all in agreement that the concept of making voting a universal civic duty in the United States would significantly enhance our democracy by broadening civic participation in all communities. We believe it is worthy of a broad public discussion, which we hope to initiate with this report. (Organizations are listed for identification purposes only.)
- E.J. Dionne Jr., The Brookings Institution
- Miles Rapoport, The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School
Working group members:
- Michelle Bishop, National Disability Rights Network
- Cornell William Brooks, Harvard Kennedy School
- Nick Chedli Carter, Resilient Democracy Fund*
- Allegra Chapman, Chapman Consulting and Common Cause
- Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, Mass VOTE
- Joshua A. Douglas, University of Kentucky Rosenberg College of Law
- Anthony Fowler, The University of Chicago
- Archon Fung, The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School
- William A. Galston, The Brookings Institution
- Amber Herrle, The Brookings Institution
- Cecily Hines, The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School
- María Teresa Kumar, Voto Latino
- Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, National Institute for Civil Discourse
- Thomas E. Mann, The Brookings Institution
- Terry Ao Minnis, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC
- Janai Nelson, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
- Nick Nyhart, Nyhart Consulting
- Norman J. Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute
- Andre M. Perry, The Brookings Institution
- Whitney Quesenbery, Center for Civic Design
- Ian Simmons, Blue Haven Initiative*
- Shane P. Singh, University of Georgia
- Tova Wang, The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School
- Dorian Warren, Community Change
- Brenda Wright, Demos
An asterisk denotes organizations that contributed financial support.
Brookings, Harvard, and the working group members are grateful for the financial support provided for this project by the Carnegie Corporation, the Resilient Democracy Fund, and the Blue Haven Initiative. This report reflects the views of its authors and not those of the Brookings Institution, the Ash Center, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or Harvard University.
- See Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (New York: Norton, 2019).
- Foner, p. 94-95.
- Lisa Hill, “Compulsory Voting Defended,” in Jason Brennan and Lisa Hill, Compulsory Voting: For and Against (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 197.
- King quoted in Barbara Arnwine and John Nichols, “Martin Luther King’s Call to ‘Give Us the Ballot’ Is As Relevant Today as It was in 1957,” The Nation, January, 15, 2018, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/martin-luther-kings-call-to-give-us-the-ballot-is-as-relevant-today-as-it-was-in-1957/tnamp/.
- This section draws on William A. Galston and E. J. Dionne Jr., “The case for universal voting: Why making voting a duty would enhance our elections and improve our government,” The Brookings Institution Center for Effective Public Management (September 2015).
- Marc Elias tweet is available here: https://twitter.com/marceelias/status/1273616769706602496?s=21.
- Joshua Kleinfeld and Rachel Kleinfeld, “How to Hold Elections during a Pandemic,” April 7, 2020, https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/04/coronavirus-response-holding-elections-during-pandemic/.