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Brookings Now

Is Compulsory Voting a Solution to America’s Low Voter Turnout and Political Polarization?

Fred Dews

Eligible voter turnout in the recent 2014 midterm elections has been estimated at 36.2 percent, the lowest since 1942. Voter participation in non-presidential election years is traditionally low, with the most partisan members of the electorate most likely to cast ballots. Voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections generally comes in at between 50 and 60 percent of the voting-age population. Some observers of U.S. politics make the case that low voter turnout results in more polarization and less legislative compromise. Is compulsory, or mandatory, voting the answer?

Senior Fellow William Galston, the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Governance Studies, imagines a “future in which Americans must vote, or face a penalty.” In that hypothetical future, Galston sees campaigns appealing to more moderate, swing voters who “preferred compromise to confrontation and civil discourse to scorched-earth rhetoric.” He sees the House and Senate “doing serious legislative work” and congressional leaders returning power to the committees, “where members relearned the art of compromise across party lines.” Read more at CNN.com.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, over 20 countries worldwide have compulsory voting, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Luxembourg, and Singapore. In Australia, for example, which has had compulsory voting in federal elections since 1924, eligible citizens must mark a ballot (they don’t have to choose a candidate) or pay a small fine, about US$17. Voter turnout is over 95 percent.

Senior Fellow Thomas Mann, the W. Averell Harriman Chair in American Governance, called mandatory voting “the most promising” of a range of reforms designed to increase the size of the electorate and make the parties less polarized. “It means,” he said in a recent Brookings Cafeteria podcast, that “political parties and candidates have no incentive to spend huge amounts of money trying to turn out their voters and to demobilize the opposition’s voters.” And yet, Mann recognizes, such a system is “in conflict with our values of political freedom.” Listen below and visit the podcast for his discussion of U.S. political dysfunction, possible remedies beyond compulsory voting, and his thoughts on the 2016 presidential election.

Mann and co-author Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute went into more detail about mandatory voting and other reform ideas in their recent book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism (Basic Books, 2012). In contrast to the old Soviet Union, which boasted a turnout of 99 percent, Mann and Ornstein observed that “The Australian system has also elevated the political dialogue.” Still, they note that most Americans oppose mandatory voting. “But they may change their opinions,” write the authors, “after another lengthy period of dominance by political extremes and the divisive discourse, agenda, and outcomes that follow.”

In a 2011 New York Times piece, Galston laid out three arguments in favor of mandatory voting: it would reinforce and strengthen citizenship; it would strengthen our democracy by leveling disparities among citizens based on education, income, and other factors; and it would diminish political polarization. Recognizing, like Mann, the barriers to enacting such a system in the United States, Galston proposed an experiment in which “a half-dozen states from parts of the country with different civic traditions should experiment with the practice, and observers—journalists, social scientists, citizens’ groups and elected officials—would monitor the consequences.”

“We don’t know what the outcome would be,” Galston concluded. “But one thing is clear: If we do nothing and allow a politics of passion to define the bounds of the electorate, as it has for much of the last four decades, the prospect for a less polarized, more effective political system that enjoys the trust and confidence of the people is not bright.”

Galston also addressed the concept, possible barriers, and the state experiment in a 2010 Brookings Policy Brief on economic growth and institutional innovation. In it he notes one criticism of Australia’s system, that “a bulge of casual voters, with little understanding of the issues and candidates, can muddy the waters by voting on non-substantive criteria.” These are called “donkey voters” in Australia, yet Galston noted that their presence “does not appear to have badly marred the democratic process in that country.”

Ultimately, the goal many espouse is full participation by citizens in U.S. democracy. Mandatory voting is but one means to this end. Mann in 2012 explained a set of alternative policies:

Mandatory attendance at the polls, though embraced successfully by Australia and several other democracies, strikes many in the United States as illiberal. That is a criticism well worth taking on. Every citizen should be registered to vote and provided with the identification certifying that eligibility. Primary elections should be structured to encourage the largest possible turnout. Election officials should be nonpartisan. New electoral rules allowing preferential voting and more direct representation of interests should be considered. And a full-scale, frontal attack on the problems of money in politics must be launched: public matches for small donations and effective transparency requirements in the short run; a constitutional amendment enabling reasonable limits on the flow of money in elections over the long haul.

See also:

Mandatory Voting Would Loosen Partisan Gridlock, interview with William Galston, U.S. News & World Report, July 2010

Is ‘Compulsory Voting’ The Answer?, interview with William Galston, NPR, June 2010

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