As the New York Times reported, just 60.2% of eligible voters made their voice heard in the 2016 presidential election. In such a close election, a few thousand votes separated the two candidates. Local elections are regularly decided by a few hundred votes. Mandatory voting, or the idea that all citizens must vote in each election, creates a more engaged populace. It can change the results of elections to benefit the largest percentage of the population. If politicians knew that everyone would vote, they would be forced to appease a larger number of people. If more people made their voice heard, the government would be held more accountable by a public who felt more invested in the actions of their government.
The concept of mandatory voting, despite its novelty domestically, is not a new idea internationally. In fact, Australia, Belgium, and Mexico all have compulsory voting, along with 19 other countries worldwide. Although it may seem outlandish to some Americans, developed and undeveloped countries alike have found success with the model.
The words “mandatory” and “compulsory” may be scary words for the freedom-loving citizens of the United States. On its face, the concept might seem dictatorial, as forcing any body of people to complete a given task has negative connotations associated with it. However, “compulsory” does not imply that an offender would be thrown in jail, as the penalties are often just small and nominal. In Australia, a $15-$35 fine is incurred for not voting. In Belgium, the penalty for choosing not to vote in four successive elections is disenfranchisement for just ten years.
These penalties are fairly tame, but they can help create a culture of political engagement. Historically, it’s been clear that compulsory voting correlates with more citizen involvement. When the Netherlands abandoned compulsory voting, the voter turnout dropped 20%, and Venezuela saw a drop in voter turnout of 30% once the mandate was removed. If more of the populace is voting, a herd mentality leads others to vote. Even if a small fine isn’t enough to compel some voters, it will still change the culture.
One question people naturally have is: “what if I don’t like any of the options?” This might seem like the biggest barrier to mandatory voting, but it can, in fact, be mitigated quite easily. Simply adding an “abstain” option next to the candidates allows citizens to vote but still not support either candidate. In this way, citizens are engaged, but they still can opt out of choosing a candidate they hate. It forces the people to consider their choice, rather than just letting the civic duty slip their mind while they sit at home.
Detractors might also say that mandatory voting can’t work because some people work during the day, and they don’t have enough time to get to the polls. However, this problem can be easily solved, too. Voting day should be a national holiday. This solution also serves to benefit voters of lower socioeconomic status. As the Pew Research Center reported, those in a lower socioeconomic class got to the polls less frequently than average in the 2016 election, so a national holiday on voting day would amplify the voices of the most vulnerable.
Compulsory voting doesn’t have to be unreasonable. Both Belgium and Australia offer to waive the compulsion if provided with a valid reason, which would prevent a penalty for people who really can’t afford it. If the US were to implement mandatory voting, the system could be lenient. Just like the governments of Australia and Belgium, the United States government could simply waive the rule if presented with a valid excuse. Ultimately, the goal is to change the culture and increase pride in the system, not to punish citizens.
In the United States today, political engagement is on the rise. Young people are making their voices heard, lots of the population feels very strongly about certain issues, and, more than ever, decisions made today will affect us for hundreds of years to come. It’s important to capitalize on this momentum and make sure that the most vulnerable in our society are heard. Mandatory voting, even despite the negative connotations that come with its title, can unite our nation around a crucial civic duty. Today, press freedoms are under attack, and fascism is on the rise, but mandatory voting can help reverse this dangerous path and save our democracy.