Should We Be Required to Vote?

Most U.S. presidential elections, the turnout hovers somewhere around 50 percent of all eligible voters. This year was no exception. After most U.S. elections, some USians notice that in Australia voting is compulsory. The turnout in Australia’s 2010 elections was 93.22 percent; in 2007 it was 95.17 percent. These USians look longingly at those figures and wish that voting were compulsory here too.

What an appalling idea. How is this idea appalling? Let me count a few ways.

  1. The most common argument against compulsory voting is that it’s an infringement of personal liberty. Some legal scholars consider it an infringement of the First Amendment: it compels citizens to speak when they don’t want to. I agree on both counts, but alone they aren’t persuasive.
  2. Some left-of-centrists are horrified because they assume that the non-voters are mostly ignoramuses who would cast their compulsory ballots for the most persuasive liar or whomever their preacher told them to vote for. Having not-voted in several elections myself, presidential and otherwise, I am not so sure about this.
  3. Australia may be one of the most democratic countries in the world, but turnouts of 90 percent and up remind me of the 99 percent majorities habitually tallied by candidates in Soviet bloc countries and other dictatorships. ‘Tain’t natural.
  4. Given the influence of Big Money, our electoral options often boil down to Doritos vs. Pringles, McDonalds vs. Burger King.
  5. Given the dismal state of the news media, particularly the visual media, becoming an informed voter requires a serious commitment of time and energy.
  6. An even more serious commitment of time and energy is required to influence the choices one gets to make on election day.

With #4, #5, and #6 we’re getting somewhere, to wit:

Postcard on my fridge

Not voting is a choice. It may not be a conscious, carefully thought out choice, but it’s a choice nonetheless. Of all things I can do on election day, goes the hypothetical non-voter’s thought process, going to the polls is so far down the list that it doesn’t get done.

Quite possibly it doesn’t make the list at all.

When I’m working with Travvy and he doesn’t do what I want, it’s usually either because he doesn’t understand what I want or because he doesn’t think it’s worth his while. I work the same way. I do cost/benefit analyses in my head: Should I take this job? Do I want to go to that concert? When I hesitate, increasing the incentives or decreasing the disincentives can make a crucial difference.

Across the six towns on Martha’s Vineyard, voter turnout in last week’s election hovered around 80 percent. Pretty good, eh? In September’s primary and last spring’s local election, the turnout was much less impressive: in the low to mid 20s, if I remember correctly. What this suggests to me is that most of us don’t vote out of some abstract sense of civic duty; we vote because we think it matters. When it doesn’t matter, we don’t vote.

For about 50 percent of eligible U.S. voters, the election just passed didn’t matter. For some 75 percent of civic-minded (so we like to think) Martha’s Vineyard voters, last spring’s local elections and September’s primary didn’t matter.

Compulsory voting would surely lift the percentages, but would it make voting matter?

No, it wouldn’t. It’s a superficial fix for a much deeper challenge. People fight hard and even die for the right to vote, but all too often once we’ve got it, voting doesn’t seem worth the effort. What’s going on?

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
This entry was posted in Martha's Vineyard, musing, public life and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Should We Be Required to Vote?

  1. Juleann says:

    More than mandatory voting, voting needs to be accessible. While we don’t have a problem on M.V., the lines move quickly & with good humor, we observed long waits in other communities. The ability to vote early, developing on-line voting, time off from work to vote — these are the issues to be addressed for the larger, urban electorate.

    The role of the electoral college is an interesting one, but it probably is an essential component of our system of representative government. We must all quit thinking we live in a Democracy. It perpetuates expectations that are seriously mis-placed.

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  2. andadivine says:

    I completely agree with your fundamental premise that voting should not be made mandatory in this country, and I admire your phrasing of points 5 and 6. I also accept your statement “Not voting is a choice. It may not be a conscious, carefully thought out choice, but it’s a choice nonetheless” and I acknowledge that I have often struggled with this decision, especially when all of the candidates or the ballot issues are bad or less than desirable. In those cases I force myself to the poll to vote for the lesser of the evils but I almost always follow up directly with the winning candidate or the sponsor of the ballot issue to state my disappointment/anger/disgust: “I did not vote FOR you or it; I voted AGAINST the other one.”

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  3. Carol Lashnits says:

    We may have to get rid of the electoral college process. I thought it was important to vote for Eliz. Warren and you and a few other local candidates. We knew Obama would win MA so my vote for him didn’t really matter. It would be interesting to try mandatory voting and see what happens.

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    • This might have been the most important election I’ve ever voted in. It was definitely the one I felt most enthusiastic about voting in. Warren was a big part of that. Running for office myself was part of it. I knew President Obama was going to take Massachusetts, no problem, but I really wanted to say YES to what his administration has managed so far and NO to the right-wing hate/fear-mongering machine.

      Come to think of it, voting can be significant for the effect it has on the outside world, but it can also have a significant effect on one’s own spirit. Making it compulsory diminishes that, I think.

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  4. tompostpile says:

    In small towns such as ours, it’s common for only one person to run for office. When this happens, a voter’s only way of expressing approval or disapproval is to vote or not vote for that person. I have noticed that these “singleton” candidates pay close attention to the percentage of votes, from the number of people voting, that they get. Go back to our most recent vote tallies, from any town, and compare the number of votes that various unopposed candidates received. That comparison can be revealing.

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  5. Shirley W. Mayhew says:

    Good thinking, Susanna – glad I gave you the subject for your blog! I hadn’t really thought about the pros and cons of compulsory voting – I guess I thought that if you had to vote you would investigate enough to decide how you would vote.

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