Assembly member Deborah Glick is sponsoring a bill in her house of the State legislature that would, if enacted, make voting compulsory, with failure to show up at the polls subject to a $10 fine.
“The United States has some of the lowest voter turnout rates compared to any other advanced democratic countries in the world,” Ms. Glick explains in a memorandum accompanying the bill. “During presidential elections, roughly 60 percent of eligible voters participate in the voting process. New York ranks 46th in voter turnout at the national level. After the 2014 midterm election, voter turnout was the lowest in 70 years.”
There are about 30 nations in the world where voting is nominally required, but only a dozen or so actually enforce these provisions. Among the most prominent are Australia, Belgium, and Brazil. In none of these places is anybody faced with the threat of jail for not voting, nor is anybody forcibly escorted to the polls. In fact, Ms. Glick’s proposed fine of $10 (which her bill earmarks for a fund that would be used exclusively to improve the election process) is about half of what Australians are required to pay when they fail to show up at the voting booth.
Nor, under Ms. Glick’s bill, nobody would actually be forced to vote for a candidate if they chose not to. (Compelling political “speech” in such a manner would likely violate the First Amendment to the Constitution.) Instead, “the sole duty imposed under this section shall be to return a ballot. No person shall be compelled to cast a valid vote,” the text of the measure says. This means that a voter would be free to leave blank any or all sections of a ballot, to write in a name not on the slate, or scrawl “none of the above” on their voting form.
But universal voting appears to have the potential to transform the political landscape in any jurisdiction where it is adopted. Statistical evidence shows that legally requiring voters to show up at the polls (or else submit written, absentee ballots — a provision also contained in Ms. Glick’s bill) generally boosts participation rates to 85 percent or above. This in, turn, changes electoral math. In low-turnout elections, which are the norm throughout the United States, candidates are incentivized to pander to the extremes, knowing that their passionately engaged “base” will be motivated to turn out on election day. This enables small splinter groups, who are deeply committed to positions opposed by a non-voting majority, to wield influence in setting the political agenda that is wildly out of proportion to their actual numbers.
In a scenario where almost every eligible voter turns out, however, extreme positions become less rewarding for candidates. The influence of narrow factions would be diluted, with the result that aspirants from both parties would be driven toward the center of the political spectrum, and forced to adopt positions with more widespread, mainstream appeal.
In New York State, where almost every county and municipality is subject to uncontested control by one or the other of the two major parties, universal voting would also likely spark seismic change. One-party dominance at the local level is largely dependent on a small cadre of disciplined “regulars” reliably showing up at the polls on election day. This is particularly true for primaries, local elections, and mid-term elections, participation in all of which is chronically sparse. The tradition of single-party dominance at the city and county level, sustained by the paradigm of elections tipped by a few dozen or few hundred insiders casting votes, is viewed by many political scientists as a breeding ground for corruption. It is also widely interpreted as a contributing factor in the lack of accountability and transparency that causes large segments of the public to become cynical about politics, and thus disengage from voting in the first place. (Politicians for whom low voter turnout amounts to a virtual guarantee of perpetual reelection thus have little to fear — and much to gain — from public frustration.)
Expanding participation would also likely make any jurisdiction that adopts such a policy more responsive to segments of the electorate that are now largely invisible. American voter participation is consistently highest among people who are older, more educated, and more affluent. (Race is also a significant correlative, with white voters being much more likely to participate than members of ethnic or racial minorities.) It naturally follows that politicians of both parties actively court these constituencies, crafting both law and policy to address their concerns. But this may also explain, at least in part, why younger, poorer, and less educated citizens (along with minorities) often complain that the political system ignores them. If such voters were required to cast ballots, it is reasonable to predict that both political dialog and the electoral process would begin to bend in their direction.
Finally, compulsory voting, if adopted outside of New York, would also be a way to address concerns about voter suppression that have plagued recent national elections. (Attempts to dissuade minority voters from turning up at the polls have not been a significant issue within New York State.)
“Since the early 1900s, Australia responded to lower voter turnout by making voting compulsory,” Ms. Glick notes. “Since the law was passed, the country has seen more than 90 percent of eligible Australians cast a ballot. Mandatory voting would drastically increase civic participation and transform the political arena by making politicians more reflective of the constituents that elected them.”