Less than 37% of Americans voted in 2014. So how can we persuade the other 63% to show up? Here’s a thought: What if we just made it illegal to not vote?
It’s so crazy, it just might work.
By comparison, France gets about 70% of the eligible population out to the polls, in Finland it’s nearly 75%.
Punishments vary from fines, difficulty getting jobs in the public sector (Belgium), inability to withdraw money from the bank (Bolivia), and difficulty getting daycare (Italy).
“Other countries have mandatory voting,” President Barack Obama said. “It would be transformative if everybody voted—that would counteract money more than anything.”
President Obama brings up one of the biggest upsides to mandatory voting. Currently, very rich people can affect voting by targeting a small, easily riled section of the population. If everyone votes, that’s harder to do. You have to con an entire nation, instead of one fraction.
Consider it a form of campaign finance reform.
There are two main arguments against making it illegal not to vote.
The first is that it impinges freedom of speech. Voting is, in itself, a form of speech, so choosing not to vote is also a form of speech. You’re choosing not to engage.
But wouldn’t it be a much clearer message to show up to the voting booth and submit a blank ballot? It might help to think of voting as a civic responsibility, like jury duty or paying taxes, rather than a mere right.
The second argument against mandatory voting goes something like this. The people who don’t take the time to register and vote now aren’t going to take the time to research and submit an informed vote when it becomes mandatory. We’d be better off, the argument goes, letting those people stay home.
There’s at least one guy who doesn’t like this line of thinking.
“The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups,” Obama said. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.”
Currently, the United States is an oligarchy. A study by Princeton and Northwestern Universities shows that government policy changes since 1981 overwhelmingly cater to the rich and special interests.
An easy way to push back against this is to have more people vote. The Rule of Large Numbers says that the bigger your sample size, the closer to the average of the general population you’ll get.
It seems logical that if entire low-income and underserved communities showed up to vote, a lot of people would suddenly take a vested interest in giving them as much information as possible. There would be a gradual, decades-long education process on the general population. Doesn’t that sound nice?
There’s still plenty to figure out—namely, how to sanction non-voters, how to provide exceptions for those like Jehovah’s Witnesses who can’t participate in government, and how to best educate a population. But making voting compulsory is a huge step toward a more engaged, representative democracy.