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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Given the influence of Big Money, our electoral options often boil down to Doritos vs. Pringles, McDonalds vs. Burger King.
- Given the dismal state of the news media, particularly the visual media, becoming an informed voter requires a serious commitment of time and energy.
- 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:
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?