You Must Vote. It's the Law.
Australia requires citizens to vote. Should the U.S.?
Australia also has a much higher rate of spoiled ballots than nearly any other democracy. There were 500,000 such ballots (out of 10 million cast) in this month's election. These include protest votes and those cast by recent immigrants who were confused by the notoriously complicated ballots. It does not include "donkey votes," so named because apathetic voters play pin the tail on the donkey at the polling station, randomly making their selections.
So, might mandatory voting work in the United States? It's a tempting quick fix to our low levels of voter turnout. Also, imagine our political parties freed from the burden of having to energize their base. Candidates could focus on converting voters, rather than trying to get them to the polls. As for concerns that mandatory voting represents government coercion, one might argue that our government coerces its citizens to perform many duties: pay taxes, attend school, serve on juries and, in times of war, fight and die for the nation.
In the end, though, mandatory voting is extremely unlikely to work in the states. An ABC News poll conducted this past summer found that 72 percent of those surveyed oppose the idea. The results are almost identical to a similar poll conducted by Gallup 40 years ago. Why such resistance? Perhaps because we view voting as a right, not a responsibility, and nothing is likely to alter that bedrock belief.
Also, mandatory voting would probably cause a further dumbing-down of election campaigns, if such a thing is possible. Motivated by a need to attract not only undecided voters but also unwilling voters, candidates would probably resort to an even baser brand of political advertising, since they would now be trying to reach people who are voting only out of a desire to obey the law and avoid a fine.
Mandatory voting would be a nightmare to enforce and would rob us of an important barometer of public interest in politics. If everyone were required to vote, then nobody would be excited to vote. And, of course, there's another downside: We'd also lose all of those entertaining get-out-the-vote campaigns.
Correctio n, Oct. 29, 2004: Due to a copy editing error, the article originally identified Prime Minister John Howard as "Conservative Prime Minister John Howard." Although Howard is indeed politically conservative, he leads Australia's Liberal Party. (Return to corrected sentence.)
Eric Weiner is author of the forthcoming book The Geography of Bliss, to be published in 2008.