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Resolved: In a democracy, voting ought to be compulsory

September 1, 2013
Published in Issues

[Planet Debate evidence release]


The September-October NFL Lincoln-Douglas resolution asks whether or not voting should be compulsory for citizens.

Although this isn’t an idea that is commonly discussed in the US, and although the idea of forcing someone to participate in voting seems intuitively problematic, there are very strong arguments on both sides of the resolution.  In this brief essay, I will review what “compulsory voting” entails and then discuss arguments on both sides of the resolution.

Compulsory Voting

Although “compulsory” voting leads one to believe that advocates of the idea want to force people to vote, what advocates are really arguing for is that people should be required to participate in the process of an election, usually by showing up at a voting booth, and not that they have to vote for one of the candidates.  Individuals who do not want to vote, for example, could just fill out a “no vote” ballot or leave without voting at all.

Arguments in Favor of Compulsory Voting

Although the concept of forcing someone to vote seems problematic, there are many purported benefits to requiring people to vote.

Reduced access barriers. For many people, voting is difficult (work, long distances to the voting booth, lack of transportation to the voting booth) and if voting is mandatory then society will work to reduce barriers – it has to!  For example, in countries where voting is mandatory, voting usually occurs on the weekends.

Those who do not turn out due to access barriers are often minorities and poor individuals.  Failure to account for these perspectives in politics undermines the legitimacy of democracy itself.

Harvard Law Review, 2007, “The Case for Compulsory Voting in the United States,” 121 Harv. L. Rev. 591, p. 593-5

The presidential election of 2000 led to an unusual situation in which the results of the election in Florida were subject to a recount that would determine who won the presidency. The difference in the number of votes won by the two major candidates was only 537, which meant that the margin of error of the machines used to count the ballots exceeded the margin of victory. Recounts by hand were inconclusive. In other words, the victory of President Bush in 2000 was not statistically significant.

This illustrates that American elections may be little more than expensive, official polls of U.S. citizens. Unlike polls conducted by social scientists, however, U.S. elections are not even particularly well-designed polls because they are not based on a representative sample of eligible voters. Rather, they rely on a racially and socioeconomically skewed sample. Because of this, America could actually achieve a more representative government by doing away with the current election system, and instead polling a large, representative sample of eligible voters, despite the fact that such a mechanism for selecting government leaders seems inherently unfair and might violate the Equal Protection Clause. Given how limited the franchise was until the twentieth century, and the low rates of voter turnout in recent decades, it is likely that no U.S. President has ever received a majority of the votes of the American adult population. In the 1984 election, for example, Ronald Reagan won a “landslide” victory, but received the votes of only 32.9% of the potential electorate. The preferences of the other 67.1% of eligible voters were either for a different candidate or simply left unaccounted for.

There are serious questions about how legitimate a government is when the vast majority of citizens have not elected it. This concern goes beyond the question of whether or not low voter turnout affects substantive policy outcomes (which is unclear). More fundamentally, there is a serious tension with the understanding “that within our constitutional tradition, democracy is prized because of the value of collective self-governance,” which is as much about procedure as it is about substance. Indeed, the level of voter turnout as a percentage of eligible voters in many recent elections would not even be sufficient to constitute a quorum for some of the most important American political institutions. But the most serious questions arise not from the sheer number of citizens whose voices are not counted, but from the fact that certain groups are underrepresented. Partly because of disparities in turnout rates by demographic categories, the center of political gravity has shifted toward the wealthiest white Americans. Government may not be giving adequate consideration to the priorities of the poor or of racial minorities.

Evidence from developing countries suggests that mandatory voting laws reduce inequality, perhaps because of the greater inclusion of interests of minorities and the poor.

Improved decision-making. If voters are required to vote they may be more likely to pay attention to what the candidates are saying and to make a more informed choice.

Duty of citizenship.  Individuals who live in a democracy benefit from the fact that the country they live in is democratic.  Given the benefits, citizens have a duty to vote, which is an essential part of that democracy.

Sarah Birch, Reader in Politics-University of Essex, 2009, Full Participation: A Comparative Study of Compulsory Voting, p. 41

It is noteworthy, however, that the Constituent Assembly did not go so far as to make voting compulsory in France.  In favor of the idea of voting as a civic duty, Graux, a deputy in the Belgian parliament participating in the debates prior to the introduction of compulsory voting there a century later, argued that ‘one does not vote for oneself: the franchise is exercised in the social interest.”

Similarly, John Stuart Mill argued in “The Mode of Voting” in Considerations on Representative Government:

“Those who say the suffrage is not a trust but a right, will scarcely accept the conclusions to which their doctrine leads.  If it is a right, if it belongs to the voter for his own sake, on what ground can we blame for selling it, or using it to recommend himself to any one to whom it is in his interests to please?  A person is not expected to consult exclusively the public benefit when he makes use of his house, or his three per cent stock, or anything else to which he really has a right.  The suffrage is indeed due to him, among other reasons, as a means to his own protection but only against treatment from which he is equally bound, so far as depends on his own vote, to protect every one of his fellow citizens. His vote is not a thing in which he has an option; it has no more to do with his personal wishes than the verdict of a juryman.  It is strictly a matter of duty: he is bound to give it according to his best and most conscientious opinion of the public good.” (Mill, 1991).

Mill’s view is echoed by that of Lord Bryce: “as individual liberty consists in exemption from political control, so political liberty consists in participation in legal control” (1921).

A more modern perspective, and one that prefigures later debates, is that voting-as-duty and voting-as-right are not incompatible, but that they go naturally together.  Thus Felix Moreau, a French legal scholar, voiced the view in 1896 that:

“Liberty is only defended by those who cherish it, by those who appreciate its guarantees and accept the duties it imposes; the right of suffrage is among the guarantees and the duties of liberty….Each person belongs to political society and receives benefit from it, perhaps against their will: they must bear the responsibility of those benefits.  Democracy confers advantages and imposes duties; together they form an indivisible whole.” (Moreau, 1896).

Individuals who do not vote are arguably immorally free-riding off of the democratic participation of others

Strengthened government legitimacy. If only a small percentage of the population votes for a particular leader or party, the actions of that leader and/or party will not be seen as legitimate as they would be if the entire population voted.  Promoting the legitimacy of the government could be seen as a civic duty.

Christopher W. Carmichael, Law Clerk to US Circuit Judge Bauer, 2002, “Proposals for Reforming the American Electoral System After the 2000 Presidential Election,” 23 Hamline J. Pub. L. & Pol’y 255, Spring, 2002, p. 323-4

Democratic theory, upon which the founders based the republic, assumes and expects that all citizens who are eligible to vote will vote. Under any interpretation of the theory of democracy, elections in American do not create a legitimate government, because the consent of the governed cannot be obtained when less then half of the eligible citizens actually vote. History demonstrates that at the same time the right to vote has been extended to the majority of American citizens, fewer and fewer of those citizens have actually exercised that right. A variety of both substantive and procedural laws create barriers, discouraging citizens from voting. The primary and party system has a negative impact upon voter turnout by directly limiting a voter’s ability to choose a representative. In recent years, the focus has shifted from politicians themselves to the issues affecting citizens. This proposal liberates Americans from the restrictions imposed by the current system and gives the voters an opportunity to demand more from the candidates. The financial penalty in this proposal is not intended to punish citizens; rather the penalty is intended to induce people to vote and carry out their duty as citizens. The bond between people and their community is severely weakened when citizens do not participate in the selection of their representatives. Failing to enact reform further jeopardizes the principles of representative democracy and the citizens’ bond to the community.

The maintenance of a democratic republic bestows duties and responsibilities upon on both citizens and government. A citizen has the duty to vote and express his or her consent or dissent from the choices given on a ballot.

Reduction of special interest influence. Compulsory voting increases the value of all individual voters and reduces the influence of particular voters and special interest groups

Alberto Chong & Mauricio Olivera, Inter-American Development Bank & George Mason University, 2006, “On Compulsory Voting and Income Inequality in a Cross-Section of Countries,” Inter-American Development Bank Working Paper #533, May, p. 9

Another view is that the existence of compulsory voting reduces the potential for fiscal spillovers between voters and non-voters and consequently reduces pressure groups’ incentives to expend resources on lobbying (Craig and Leonard, 1993). The claim is that there is a negative relationship between the existence of compulsory voting and the scale of government expenditures. Public policy is driven by the demands of competing pressure groups and government favors are bestowed upon small, well-organized coalitions at the expense of dispersed unorganized tax-payers. According to this argument, transfers to special interests in per capita terms are large in relation to the per capita costs, which are spread across a broadly dispersed group of taxpayers (O’Toole and Strobl, 1995). The large gains to interest groups relative to the small costs of taxpayers implies that policies produced are not in the collective interest of the majority as aggregate costs exceed benefits per capita. This asymmetry means that interest groups have more incentive to organize and spend lobbying resources advocating policies than taxpayers have to organize against these policies. Unorganized individual voters have little incentive to become informed or participate in the political process given the costs of voting relative to the small expected benefit. As more voters are coerced into the process, voting by the cost-bearing group will rise more than proportionately, simply because it is larger in size than the benefit-receiving group. Thus, the interest group framework suggests that compulsory voting will reduce government activity and expenditures (Crain and Leonard, 1993).

Global democratic credibility. Adopting a compulsory voting system would strengthen the credibility of the US global democratic model.

Christopher W. Carmichael, Law Clerk to US Circuit Judge Bauer, 2002, “Proposals for Reforming the American Electoral System After the 2000 Presidential Election,” 23 Hamline J. Pub. L. & Pol’y 255, Spring, 2002, p. 317

The United States has consistently had the second lowest voter turnout of any major industrialized democracy. Mandatory voting has been used by many other democratic countries. The implementation of this proposal would enhance the United States’s reputation as a democracy. The reputation of the United States is enhanced because the goal of a representative democracy is to have legitimate elections which reflect the will of the people.

The advantages and disadvantages of global democracy are covered in the September-October UIL evidence release.

It’s not radical. Although forcing someone to vote seems a bit counterintuitive, citizens have other obligations in a democracy, including obligation to pay taxes, follow laws, and to attend school.  The most direct comparison may be to jury service, as requiring someone to vote is really no different than requiring a person to serve on a jury.

The idea of compulsory voting is not just a theory.  Democratic countries such as Australia  and Greece have compulsory voting laws and those laws have effectively increased voter turnout.  Globally, 25 democracies require their citizens to vote.

Compulsory voting appears to be the only effective solution to the problem of low voter turnout

Lisa Hill, University of Adelaide, 2001, “Increasing Turnout Using Compulsory Voting,” Politics, Vol. 31(1), p. 33

The third practical concern Saunders raises is that compulsory voting is unable to address one of the root causes of low turnout: alienation (Saunders, 2010, p. 71) (curiously, this appears to involve an admission on Saunders’ part that it is alienation rather than being ‘unaffected’ that is a major cause of abstention, thereby negating one of his key arguments against compulsory voting). While it could never be claimed that compulsory voting is a universal panacea for all the problems that beset democracy, it has been found to have ‘a strong and significant impact on satisfaction with democracy’ (Birch, 2009a, p. 113). It also seems to stimulate other forms of political participation. Compulsory voting is even correlated with lower levels of political corruption (Birch, 2009b, p. 140), an effect that undoubtedly helps to keep political alienation at bay.

From a normative perspective, if we accept, as I do, the legitimacy of the ‘all affected interests’ principle, and agree that – as far as possible – undemocratic distortions should be eliminated from the electoral system, then empirical trends in both voting behaviour and government responsiveness point us towards rather than away from compulsory voting. Empirical data also undercut Saunders’ practical objections to compulsory voting since requiring people to vote has been shown to provide the only decisive and effective solution to low turnout; further, it appears to ameliorate political alienation.

No alternative proposed to date has been as effective at increasing turnout as mandatory voting

Anabelle Lever, Philosophy Professor-London School of Economic and Political Science, 2008, “Compulsory voting: a critical perspective,” British Journal of Political Science, p. 8-9

If the first steps in the argument for compulsory voting are, typically, an expression of concern about declining and increasingly unequal turnout, the next step notes that there are a variety of plausible remedies for these problems. However, none seems as immediate, or as effective as compulsion in rectifying both low and unequal turnouts. Thus, while it is common to suggest that registration and voting should be made easier, that voting should take place at weekends, and that more active campaigning of all voters should be promoted, none of these is guaranteed to have any significant effect on turnouts, or on inequality. Such effects, in any case, are likely to be medium to long term. By contrast, compulsory voting has immediate and dramatic effects on turnout, and the results are most dramatic the lower the rate of turnout to begin with. For example, in the 24 elections since 1946, Australia has average turnout of 94.5%; and in the 19 elections since 1947, Belgium averaged 92.7% turnout. So, compulsion in and of itself can turn around low turnout and, even though it cannot wholly remove inequalities of turnout, it can dramatically lessen these, too.

High voter turnout is associated with increased civic engagement, reduced voter alienation, reductions in political polarization, avoidance of violent protest, and increased government accountability.

Some object to compulsory voting on the grounds that people who would not otherwise vote will just show up and cast random votes, but there is strong empirical evidence from Australia that high quality voting does occur.

Lisa Hill, University of Adelaide, 2001, “Increasing Turnout Using Compulsory Voting,” Politics, Vol. 31(1), p. 31

Other empirical evidence casts further doubt on the hypothesis of random distortion: In Australia, donkey votes account for only around 1 per cent of total votes cast (King and Leigh, 2006). More importantly, this figure is actually lower than in many systems where voting is voluntary (Birch, 2009a, p. 111). It is also worth noting that, in Australia, there tend to be about as many deliberately spoiled and blank ballots as there are donkey votes (about 1 per cent of total votes cast each) (Hill, forthcoming; King and Leigh, 2006); therefore at least half of random votes are deliberately nullified by their authors. This renders them incapable of distorting outcomes. It might be retorted that this only shows that compelling people to vote is a waste of time because deliberate informality ends up being the functional equivalent of abstention. The obvious response is that this is only true of a very small proportion of typical abstainers; the vast majority cast – or sincerely attempt to cast – valid votes. Given that compulsory voting can increase turnout by as much as 30+ percentage points (Louth and Hill, 2005), one percentage point of intentionally invalid votes and no discernible increase in donkey votes seems to be a tolerable cost of enfranchising the disadvantaged

Others argue that there is a right not to vote, but there is really no foundation for this claim.

Sarah Birch, Reader in Politics-University of Essex, 2009, Full Participation: A Comparative Study of Compulsory Voting, p. 42-3

Finally, the common argument that the right to vote implies a right not to vote has been countered by Heather Lardy (2004), who argues that the right to vote is a positive right: “The democratic standing which the right to vote confers is fully intelligible only as the award of an entitlement to participate actively, rather than as a merely passive possessor of the franchise” (2004: 311).  Moreover, “non-voting is not only a matter of public concern; it is like voting itself, a public act” (2004:313).  Lardy goes on to distinguish between liberty as non-interference and liberty as non-domination, arguing that the right to vote is a matter of freedom as non-domination, and as such it does not entail the right not to vote.  It is worth quoting this argument at length:

Those who argue for a right not to vote presume an underlying theory of liberty as non-interference.  They assume this perhaps because the right to vote tends to be presented as an ordinary negative liberty, protecting against interferences by agencies of state.  It has been argued here that compulsory voting may only be represented as an interference with liberty by mischaracterizing the sort of freedom which the right to vote represents.  The right to vote is about freedom as non-domination.  It is for those who oppose compulsion to demonstrate how it would threaten the liberty to which the right to vote relates.  The liberty which the right not to vote asserts can provide only an inaccurate and impoverished account of the relation between freedom and voting.  The liberty which the right to vote represents protects individual decisions about how to vote, and about what value to attach to the act of voting.  It does not, however, grant those whom it recognizes as electors as a freedom not to vote at all.” (Lardy, 2004: 315)

Finally, it is noteworthy that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled (X v Australia, 1971) that compulsory voting does not violate freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights) so long as voters have the option of casting blank or spoilt ballots (Baston and Ritchie, 2004: 36; Electoral Commission, 2006:10).

Yet others argue that compulsory voting violates the First Amendment (in the US) because it requires someone to express his or her opinion. But the primary purpose of voting is not expression and an individual who doesn’t want to vote for this reason could always apply for conscientious objector status.

Harvard Law Review, 2007, “The Case for Compulsory Voting in the United States,” 121 Harv. L. Rev. 591, p. 601-4

Unlike some rights, the First Amendment right to free speech does imply an inverse right not to be compelled to speak. Sometimes remaining silent is a statement itself. The choice not to vote can be a political statement, subject to First Amendment protection, and compulsory voting inhibits this statement. According to this argument, by forcing the nonvoting population into conformity with the set of choices that they get at the polls, we are silencing the more informative statement they make by not participating. Not only does this silencing raise First Amendment concerns, but it also raises doubts about how compulsory voting can make government more representative if certain voters feel better represented by staying out of the electoral process altogether.

The constitutional validity of this First Amendment argument is doubtful. The expressive function of elections is secondary to their function in selecting government leaders. The Supreme Court has “repeatedly upheld reasonable, politically neutral regulations that have the effect of channeling expressive activity at the polls.” The Court has specifically upheld limited burdens on the right to vote for the candidate of one’s choosing in declaring that a state’s prohibition of voting for write-in candidates was valid.

A compulsory voting regime differs from a prohibition on write-in votes, however, because it does more than just limit choice – compulsory voting literally compels a choice of some kind. The Supreme Court recognized an individual right not to be compelled by the government to express an idea that one does not agree with in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. Requiring someone to vote for a particular cause or candidate would clearly violate the First Amendment, but requiring someone to vote for the candidate of his or her choosing is viewpoint neutral. A person is not being forced to express any particular viewpoint when a law requires him to cast a vote for someone of his own choosing – anyone really, given the opportunity to vote for a write-in candidate, which exists in most states.

Viewpoint-neutral laws trigger an intermediate level of scrutiny. Although there have been several formulations of the intermediate scrutiny test in the First Amendment context, the key elements of the test are that the law must further a substantial government interest and that it must be narrowly tailored to serve that interest. Compulsory voting laws serve the interest of improving and legitimizing democratic government, which this Note assumes would qualify as substantial. More complicated is the requirement of narrow tailoring.

A compulsory voting regime could be narrowly tailored by allowing people to abstain (submitting a ballot without registering a vote), or perhaps to obtain a “conscientious objector” exemption from even submitting a ballot. This exemption would satisfy the requirement of narrow tailoring because it would leave open the same opportunities for expression that exist under the current system of voluntary voting. Such an exemption could be made available to anyone who fills out a simple form and is willing to sign a statement indicating that he or she chooses not to vote for political or religious reasons. This requirement would at least ensure that those who are not voting are doing so as a matter of political expression or religious belief and not because of the collective action problem inherent in voting.

While any compulsory voting proposal would probably need to have a conscientious objector exemption in order to be politically palatable, the value of the statements individuals make by not voting is actually quite limited. If not voting is meant to be a statement of dissatisfaction with the candidates and their policies, then it is not a very effective one. First, the option of voting for a write-in candidate gives people choices beyond the candidates listed on the ballot. Second, even if a person does not particularly like any of the candidates, dissatisfaction is not the same as indifference. Many nonvoters presumably have some preference as to which candidate is elected even if none of the candidates is an ideal choice. If a potential voter is truly indifferent, then being forced to cast a vote for one or another candidate is no better or worse to that person than abstaining. There may be other political statements that people make by not voting, such as questioning the legitimacy of democratic government. There are, of course, many other outlets through which these statements can be made. Nevertheless, including a conscientious objector exemption in a compulsory voting regime can effectively subdue concerns about curbing political expression while still remedying the collective action problem of voting.

Conscientious objector status can also be used to ameliorate concerns that some religions object to political participation.

The Negative

Although the case for compulsory voting is strong, there are also many strong arguments against it.

Anti-democratic. The foundation for democracy is freedom. Requiring an individual to vote is inherently antithetical to that freedom

Katherine M. Swenson, J.D. Candidate, 2007, “Sticks, Carrots, Donkey Votes, and True Choice: A Rationale for Abolishing Compulsory Voting in Australia,” Minnesota Journal of International Law, Summer, 16 Minn. J. Int’l L. 525, p. 526-7

Although compulsory voting would seem to bolster the “democratic ideals of participation and equality,” compelling a person to cast a ballot is antithetical to the democratic value of individual freedom.  Indeed, Australia’s “freedom of political expression” rings rather hollowly when the right to make a choice does not include the right not to make that choice.  The late Frederick Jonas Dreyfus defined the word “vote” as “a sacred offering of patriotic service at the altar of one’s country.”  Therefore, he argued, “compulsion causes it to lose all sanctity and become valueless.”  There certainly is a tension between the idea that citizens choose to have a democratic government, and the idea that they must cast a vote.  Several authors have compared compulsory voting to “forcing a man to be free.”

Rights. People should have the right not to vote, at least as a form of protest.

Anabelle Lever, Philosophy Professor-London School of Economic and Political Science, 2008, “Compulsory voting: a critical perspective,” British Journal of Political Science, p. 27-8

True, such forms of protest are can be misinterpreted, and by themselves are unlikely to be wholly successful. But that is true of most forms of protest, and would be true of compulsory voting, itself. After all, it is unclear what meaning we should give to those who queue to tick their names off an electoral register, but then go home without voting. Nor is it evident what we should say about those who voted for “none of the above”, other than that they preferred this option to the others that were available. Most protest, and all voting, depends for its success on the behaviour of other people, many of whom we will not know, many of whom will have interests and beliefs quite at odds with our own, and over whose behaviour we have no influence. This is why the interpretation of political action (or inaction) is complex, whether we are talking about votes or demonstrations, and why the consequences of political action can be hard both to predict and to interpret. People must, therefore, have rights to limit their participation in politics and, at the limit, to abstain, not simply because such rights can be crucial to prevent coercion by neighbours, family, employers or the state, but because they are necessary for people to decide what they are entitled to do, what they have a duty to do, and how best to act on their respective duties and rights.

Free speech and expression. Since not voting is an expressive act, it is arguably protected by the First Amendment (in the US) and generally by free speech rights

Katherine M. Swenson, J.D. Candidate, 2007, “Sticks, Carrots, Donkey Votes, and True Choice: A Rationale for Abolishing Compulsory Voting in Australia,” Minnesota Journal of International Law, Summer, 16 Minn. J. Int’l L. 525, p. 539-40

There are many expressive possibilities behind the failure to cast a formal vote. One type of situation discloses the possibility of non-voting as being expressive in the manner discussed above: the voter made an honest mistake, but intended to cast a formal vote in accordance with the law. However, voters who leave their ballots blank, intentionally spoil them, or do not attend the polls arguably are expressing themselves through their failures to cast a formal vote.

One possible explanation is that voters are apathetic toward their civic duty – they do not feel that casting a formal vote is worth the effort, so they do not attend the polls, or they turn in a blank ballot. Expression of apathy might also include a voter’s decision that some other task, such as working, was more important than casting a vote. Another possible reason behind abstention is that a voter has no preference for any candidate or does not feel adequately informed to make a choice. For example, a voter may deem all of the candidates undeserving of her vote. Voters may also abstain from voting due to dissatisfaction with the system in a broader sense. The particular reason (or reasons) why a voter abstains is truly known only to the individual voter; and the message conveyed by failing to cast a formal vote can be ambiguous. What is certain is that abstention can involve political expression or communication, and that a number of Australians have professed that their refusal to vote is due to disagreement or dissatisfaction with the political process.

Civic engagement.  Voters who do not want to vote but are required to participate are less likely to be engaged politically in other ways.

Krister Lundell, Professor Abo Akademi University, 2012, “Civic Participation and Political Trust: The Impact of Compulsory Voting,” Representation, Vol. 48:2, p. 226-7

We can, hence, conclude that there is no spill-over effect from electoral participation to civic engagement. On the contrary, the analysis suggests that the legal obligation to participate in elections negatively affects other forms of societal engagement. Presumably, to some extent the positive and negative effects of compulsory voting cancel each other out. There are certainly those who get inspired and take interest in political and societal activities because of the citizen duty to participate in elections. To a greater extent, however, compulsory voting seems to generate societal disillusion and an antipathetic attitude towards other forms of societal participation. Thus, good things do not go together  here—a high level of electoral participation through the institution of compulsory voting is not accompanied by a high level of civic participation.

Reduced value of voting.  If citizens vote because they are compelled to do so, they may see it as less of a civic obligation and more as something that they are simply required to do in order to avoid a fine .

Eric Fleisig-Greene, Appellate Staff, Civil Division-US Dept. of Justice, 2007, “Law’s War with Conscience: The Psychological Limts of Enforcement,” Brigham Young University Law Review, 2007 B.Y.U.L. Rev. 1203, p. 1225

While the United States has never required its citizens to vote, a number of other countries throughout the world have implemented mandatory voting systems, including Belgium, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Costa Rica. Sanctions for noncompliance range from small to moderate fines, as in Australia and Belgium, to ineligibility for government office or even disenfranchisement.

Such systems have been criticized as undermining individuals’ rights to dissent and free expression, and that critique may offer one explanation why mandatory voting has not been implemented in the United States. But CET provides another, more practical concern with mandatory voting. State-created incentives designed to encourage voter turnout may also undermine individuals’ normative commitment to voting, and may do so undetected even as the law’s external compulsion increases turnout overall.

Poor voter quality. Forcing turnout just means that uninformed citizens who do not want to vote in the first place will begin voting.  This will lead to poor decision-making and potentially the election of less desirable candidates.

Michael Pitts, Professor Indiana University School of Law, 2011, “Opt-Out Voting,” Hofstra Law Review, Summer, 39 Hofstra L. Rev. 897, p. 923-4

Of course, registered voters who do not turn out could well be unhappy and alienated. Even so, low turnout may be desirable (and any higher turnout created by opt-out voting undesirable) because those who participate are the best-informed voters and increasing participation by less informed voters might dilute the voting talent pool. As John Stuart Mill once said “[a] man who does not care whether he votes is not likely to care much which way he votes; and he who is in that state of mind has no moral right to vote at all … .” Or, as a slightly more recent commentator has put it: “an unwilling or indifferent vote is a thoughtless one … .By making it more difficult to vote, we perhaps get a “better” electorate in terms of more politically informed voters. In this way, it is positive to have some barriers to casting a ballot and opt-out voting may break down too many of those barriers.

Indeed, some empirical research lends support to the argument that higher turnout at elections may just lead to additional voters casting uninformed votes. For instance, one pair of researchers found that in suburban elections – where voter turnout tends to be low – those who cast ballots were generally well-informed voters. Another study of compulsory voting compared voters who were compelled to vote with voters who would not have voted absent the compulsory voting regime. That study determined that those forced to cast ballots by compulsory voting were “less inclined to make their decisions in a way that coherently reflects their issue preferences” and that this increases the likelihood that an election outcome “will not accurately reflect the distribution of voter preferences.” In addition, less informed voters might be more likely to cast ballots in favor of incumbents merely because of name recognition, or might be more likely to cast a ballot based solely upon the racial identity of the candidates. In essence, there are some plausible reasons to think that higher turnout could result in a less informed electorate and less accurate elections.

Participation by the ignorant, uninformed masses is likely to threaten democracy itself.

Thomas R. Dye & Harmon Ziegler, Government Professor-Florida State University, 1993, The Irony of Democracy: An Uncommon Introduction to American Politics, 9th Edition, p. 19

It is the irony of democracy that democratic values can survive only in the absence of mass political activism.  Democratic values thrive best when the masses are absorbed in the everyday life and involved in groups and activities that distract their attention from mass political movements. Political stability depends on mass involvement in work, family, neighborhood, trade union, hobby, church, group recreation, and other activities.  When the masses become alienated from home, work, and community–when their ties to social organizations and institutions weaken–they become vulnerable to the appeals of demagogues, and democratic values are endangered.

Mass activism inspires elite repression.  Mass political movements, when they gain momentum and give rise to hatred, generate fear and insecurity among elites.  They respond by limiting freedom and strengthening security, banning demonstrations, investigating and harassing opposition, arresting activists, and curtailing speech, writing, and broadcasting–usually under the guise of preserving law and order.  Ironically, elites resort to these repressive actions out of a genuine belief that they are necessary to preserve democratic values.

As for the argument that non-voting citizens are free riding, they may be participating in politics in other ways, and even those who are not participating politically may still be participating in other valuable ways.

Jason Brenan, Professor Public Policy-Georgetown University, 2011, The Ethics of Voting, p. 64-5

Recall the Public Goods Argument:

1. Good governance is a public good.

2. No one should free-ride on the provision of such goods.  Those who benefit from such goods should reciprocate.

3. Citizens who abstain from voting free-ride on the provision of good governance.

4. Therefore, each citizen should vote.

In light of the preceding discussion, it should be clear how the extrapolitical theory of civic virtue challenges this argument.  Premise 3 is false.  Citizens can contribute in other ways and thus not be guilty of free-riding.  They can pay for the political goods they receive by providing nonpolitical goods.  Moreover, providing nonpolitical goods is an indirect way of providing political goods.

Suppose you are not fully on board with my account of civic virtue and of how citizens do their part.  However, even if you just find it a plausible alternative, this poses a problem for the Public Goods Argument.  Someone making the Public Goods Argument has the burden of proof, because she is asserting the positive claim that there is a duty to vote.  So, to succeed, the defender of the Public Goods Argument needs to prove that a view like mine is wrong.  She would need to show that citizens cannot pay for good governance by supplying nonpolitical goods.  She needs to show that providing nonpolitical goods is not an indirect way of providing political goods.  Until she shows this, she has not discharged her burden of proof. Suppose you reject my conclusion that one can have civic virtue and pay any debts to society without participating in politics.  Suppose you insist that in order to avoid free-riding on good governance, one must directly provide for good governance.  Even then, my argument is a challenge for defenders of the duty to vote.  Just as there are many ways of contributing to society without participating in politics, there are many ways of promoting good governance without voting.  At best, it seems that the Public Goods Argument could derive a duty to promote good governance directly, but voting is not necessary to discharge this duty.  One could run for office, make campaign contributions, or volunteer at city hall instead.

And the claim that high voter turnout will check dictatorships is weak  because there was high voter turnout in Weimer Germany.

Frances Fox Piven & Richard A. Cloward, Government Professors- CUNY and Social Activist, 1988, Why Americans Don’t Vote, p. 14

A bolder but kindred argument fastens precisely on the characteristics of nonvoters–on their presumed extremism and volatility–to explain why their abstention is healthy for the polity.  To cite one classic example, Lipset draws on evidence that nonvoters are more likely to have antidemocratic attitudes.  Similarly, George Will, writing “In Defense of Nonvoting” says that “the fundamental human right” is not to vote but “to good government,” and he points to the high turnouts in the late Weimar Republic as evidence of the dangers of increased voter participation, an example widely favored by those who make this argument.  Will’s point of view is reminiscent of nineteenth-century reformers who proposed various methods of improving the “quality” of the electorate by reducing turnout.  Consider, for example, the New York Times in 1878: “It would be  a great gain if people could be made to understand distinctly that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness involves, to be sure, the right to good government, but not the right to take part, either immediately or indirectly in the management of the state.

And the claim that low turnout threatens democracy is quite weak.

Ben Saunders, University of Stirling, 2012, “The Democratic Turnout ‘Problem'” Political Studies, Vol. 60, p. 306

This article defends claim (3); that is, I shall argue that it is not necessarily a bad thing, democratically speaking, if turnout levels are low. The mere opportunity to vote is sufficient to realise the value of democracy, whether or not people exercise it. Indeed, there may even be democratic reasons for some not to vote, for instance if they are not affected by a decision. If I am right, this undercuts common justifications for encouraging voting (by compulsion or non-coercive means). A democracy in which all enfranchised turn out (or even vote) is not necessarily democratically better than one where not all do so. The argument is, in this sense, a strong one, because it does not rely on the negative side-effects of compulsion or other attempts to increase turnout, but maintains that low levels of turnout are not even a cause for concern.

Additional Thoughts

There are a couple of other things worth noting about the resolution:

(1) The resolution does not say, “in the United States.”  Although some of the arguments above are discussed in this context, and one of the purposes of this resolution is to get people thinking about compulsory voting in the United States, debaters should just use the US as one example when making arguments. The resolution asks a general and global question about compulsory voting in democracies.

(2) The resolution says, “In a democracy, …” It only asks the question of whether or not compulsory voting should favored in countries that are democracies.  Arguments about whether or not democracy is good (outside the question of modeling the United States) are not relevant.


Evidence from all of these sources is included in the Planet Debate evidence release

Sarah Birch, Reader in Politics-University of Essex, 2009, Full Participation: A Comparative Study of Compulsory Voting

Peter A. Beinart, Yale University, 1989, “The Real American Voting Problem,” Polity, Vol. 22(1), Autumn, p. 148

Harvard Law Review, 2007, “The Case for Compulsory Voting in the United States,” 121 Harv. L. Rev. 591, p. 593-5

Jason Marisam, Post-Graduate Research Fellow-Harvard Law School, 2009, “Voter Turnout: From Cost to Cooperation,” St. Thomas Law Review, Winter, 21 St. Thomas L. Rev. 190, p. 193

Dean Machin, University of Warwick, 2011, “Compulsory Turnout: A Compelling (and Contingent) Case,” Politics, Vol. 31 (2), p. 105

Christopher W. Carmichael, Law Clerk to US Circuit Judge Bauer, 2002, “Proposals for Reforming the American Electoral System After the 2000 Presidential Election,” 23 Hamline J. Pub. L. & Pol’y 255, Spring, 2002, p. 257

Anabelle Lever, Philosophy Professor-London School of Economic and Political Science, 2008, “Compulsory voting: a critical perspective,” British Journal of Political Science, []

Sean Matsler, Attorney, 2003, “Compulsory Voting in America,” Southern California Law Review, 76 S. Cal. L. Rev. 953, May, p. 954

Arend Lijphart, University of California @ San Diego, 1997, “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 91 (1), March, p. 1

T. S. Krishna Murthy, Chief Election Commissioner of India, 2012, “The Relevance of Voting Rights in Modern Democracy,” Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy, 2 Wake Forest J. L. & Pol’y 337, p. 344

James M. Avery & Mark Peffley, Political Science Professors – Southern Illinois University and University of Kentucky, 2005, “Voter Registration Requirements, Voter Turnout, and Welfare Eligibility Policy: Class Bias Matters,” State Politics & Policy Quarterly, Vol. 5 (47), p. 61

Lisa Hill, History Professor-University of Adelaide, 2010, “On the Justifiability of Compulsory Voting: Reply to Lever,” British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 40(04), p. 919

Anthoula Malkopoulou, Fellow-Center for European Policy Studies, 2009, “Lost Voters: Participation in EU Elections and the Case for Compulsory Voting,” CEPS Working Document No 317, July, [], p. 1

Scott Bennett, Parliament of Australia, 2005, Compulsory voting in Australian national elections, Parliamentary Library-Research Brief, October, No. 6, [;fileType=application%2Fpdf#search=%22library/prspub/06SH6%22], p. 1

Alberto Chong & Mauricio Olivera, Inter-American Development Bank & George Mason University, 2006, “On Compulsory Voting and Income Inequality in a Cross-Section of Countries,” Inter-American Development Bank Working Paper #533, May, [], p. 10-1

Lisa Hill, University of Adelaide, 2001, “Increasing Turnout Using Compulsory Voting,” Politics, Vol. 31(1), p. 33

Christopher W. Carmichael, Law Clerk to US Circuit Judge Bauer, 2002, “Proposals for Reforming the American Electoral System After the 2000 Presidential Election,” 23 Hamline J. Pub. L. & Pol’y 255, Spring, 2002, p. 312-3

Anthony Ciccone, JD Candidate, 2002,The Constitutional Right to Vote is not a Duty,” 23 Hamline J. Pub. L. & Pol’y 325, Spring, p. 329

Jason Brenan, Professor Public Policy-Georgetown University, 2011, The Ethics of Voting, p. 1

Ben Saunders, University of Oxford, 2010, “Increasing Turnout: A Compelling Case?”, Politics, Vol. 30(1), p. 70

Deepak Lal, International Development Studies Professor-UCLA, 1993, “Participation, Markets and Democracy,” UCLA Dept of Economics, Working Paper # 705, [],

Jeffrey A. Blomberg, J.D. Candidate, 1995, “Protecting the Right Not to Vote from Voter Purge Statutes,” 64 Fordham L. Rev. 1015, December, p. 1049-50

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