Obama (sort of) backs mandatory voting. Here’s why it’s a good (and bad) idea

At a town hall event in Cleveland yesterday, President Obama came awfully close to endorsing the idea that every American citizen should have to vote:

Mandatory voting, which is enforced in twelve democracies and on the books in others, has been kicking around in American liberal circles for a while — our own Josh Yazman argued for it just last week. And the data are clear: If your goal is to boost turnout, then forcing your citizens to cast ballots is (unsurprisingly) the best way to do it.

But does that, by itself, make the policy a good idea?

Mandatory voting would be a dramatic shift in America, a country whose citizens perceive a deeper sense of a “right to be left alone” than those of other industrialized democracies. At the same time, the portion of the population that shows up for our current elections does not represent the country as a whole: It is whiter, older, richer and more educated.

So would turning voting into a more frequent, less time-consuming form of jury duty do our democracy any good?

The pros: Everyone is voting

A few good things happen when voter turnout is guaranteed to be close to 100%. For starters, you eliminate the aforementioned racial and economic disparities in the electorate, closing the gap between the result of an election and the aggregate “true preference” of the public.

The week before Election Day in 2012, Pew released a survey showing President Obama and Mitt Romney tied at 47% among likely voters. But self-described non-voters backed President Obama by an overwhelming 59-24 margin, reporting a 64-28 favorable/unfavorable rating of the President. Altogether, the survey showed that a hypothetical election in which all adults voted would have produced an Obama landslide, with the President holding a 51-39 edge among all adult respondents.

President Obama votes for himself in 2012, via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama votes for himself in 2012, via Wikimedia Commons

Non-voters also expressed more liberal views on economic and foreign policy issues than voters. And at least with respect to the economic issues, there’s a straightforward explanation: Over half of non-voters had household incomes of less than $30,000 per year.

This data point alludes to perhaps the best case for mandatory voting: It changes the way campaigns have to approach the electorate. No longer worried about turning out their respective bases with wedge issues, candidates would be forced to appeal to slices of the electorate they currently ignore. Our elections would feature fewer fireworks and more substance, as the Todd Akins of the Republican Party would feel less compelled to talk about “forcible rape” and more compelled to explain why they’re trying to make life more difficult for citizens who face a host of structural disadvantages already.

The cons: Everyone is voting

There are a number of reasons why people don’t vote.

A lot of them are bad. For example, in presidential elections, the number of non-voters who want to vote but are unable to register — either they lacked access or missed a deadline — often exceeds the margin of victory in the national popular vote. Additionally, the ways in which our elections are administered — on a weekday, with uneven distribution of polling stations — turn a significant number of would-be voters into non-voters every year. So there are a number of policies we could implement, short of mandatory voting, that would expand ballot access and boost turnout.

But some of them are good, and can be interpreted as equal expressions of political speech to casting a ballot. For instance, a citizen who surveys the field of candidates and carefully decides that they can’t stomach any of them is absolutely exercising their right to political speech by not voting. And unless 49 more states add Nevada’s “none of the above” line to allow for an accounting of protest abstentions, it’s hard to argue that forcing them to show up and write someone in is any more representative.

Alternatively, a citizen who knows how much they don’t know about the pros and cons of their vote choice could very easily conclude that their most responsible decision is to sit the election out. That’s political speech, too.

Forcing this subset of the population to show up might not be such a good idea. Campaigns respond to the electorates with which they are presented, and just as our candidates will be forced to address the influx of voters who are currently excluded from the electorate for structural reasons, they will also have to take the opinions of the perennially uninformed into account.

Ask any political consultant in Australia how they feel when two people voice the same wildly incorrect opinion in a focus group. In America, there’s a good chance that at least one of them won’t show up to vote; in Australia, they get pandered to along with the rest of the populace.

57.5 percent of eligible citizens cast a ballot in 2012. Relative to the democracies we like to compare ourselves to, that’s an embarrassingly low level of voter turnout for any national election, let alone a presidential one. But the remaining 42.5% of the public that didn’t vote is not a monolith; there are a number of reasons why they didn’t turn out.

And there are a host of policies we can implement — starting with universal voter registration, a voting week and a standardized polling place — that will expand ballot access to those who want to vote without coercing those who don’t, or feel that they shouldn’t.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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