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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49 Responses to “Obama (sort of) backs mandatory voting. Here’s why it’s a good (and bad) idea”

  1. Harry Underwood says:

    The worst about this is what is not addressed, but is fed by mandatory voting: non-proportional representation. If we have a terrible two-party monster of an oligarchy, what makes it any better to have to mandatorily make a choice?

  2. caphillprof says:

    Au contraire, the numbers permit the Congress to be bought

  3. Denver Catboy says:

    Heh. I develop software for a living so I hope I’m at least decent at it. Mind you, this is just the highest level sketch of the system. We’d need strong enough crypto that no one could breach the system. We’d need non-repudiation and all that jazz, with integrity monitoring to make sure it’s not been tampered with. But yeah…power brokers used to being able to manipulate the system for profit (the GOP is the most visible part but anyone that thinks Team Blue doesn’t dabble in the cookie jar is deluding themselves…) will complain if they lose that access.

  4. FLL says:

    Santorum’s statement is typically dogmatic and displays a misunderstanding of the balance of powers. However, the centerpiece of the clip is the statement by the S Carolina woman, a stylistic variety of Obama Derangement Syndrome, which is increasingly amusing as Obama’s term comes to an end. I can only imagine the S Carolina woman in this clip, but performing the same rant 30 years from now (in between swigs of gin), in some derelict Southern Gothic setting.

  5. ComradeRutherford says:

    Wow, that sound like it would actually work.

    Obviously, though, if the GOP can’t write secret code that no one is ever allowed to see – like we have now – they’ll never approve…

  6. Denver Catboy says:

    This might work if people are willing to trust technology. Here’s an idea:

    You go to a kiosk with a keypad and a camera. You key in your Social Security number. The number is hashed with a time-dependent value and sent to a central broker, which either responds with a token or an invalid SSN response (the hash means that no one knows your SSN in transit, it’s a form of crypto that uses math to generate a unique value that the broker can test against by doing the math on its end). The Broker would respond ‘Invalid’ if the SSN has been used this election, also.

    If you have a valid token, that token is then associated with your ballot. The ballot itself is sent somewhere else, and the only thing the Token is used for is to invalidate the ballot if it turns out something went wrong (fraudulently used ballot). The Token is also sent back to the Broker with a photo of you and the Unique ID on the envelope of the ballot. On Election Counting Day (NOT Election Day, more on this in a moment), the ballot is opened and counted as long as its token remains valid. The ballot is opened by a machine that has no ability to track the ballot after the envelope is counted, and the ballot itself, purely anonymized, is sent to the counting system. If the token has been invalidated, the ballot, still sealed, is directed into a no-count bin.

    The software for doing this would be Open Sourced…1) an encryption algorithm that relies on the algorithm being a secret is not secure — the secret must be the Unique Identifier (your SSN in this case), and knowing the algorithm should never allow the secret to be discoverable. 2) Open Source software can be vetted by the public.

    The equipment for doing this should be supervised by election judges.

    And the hardest part? People should be able to trust it.

    And as for Election Counting Day? This would be necessary because election ‘day’ won’t be a day. It’ll be a week, with a holiday somewhere in the span.

  7. Denver Catboy says:

    There is a much easier way to do this.

    Make Election Day, Election Week. Enforce a national holiday at least one of those days. And then encourage use of mailed ballots, so people can make their decisions in the comfort of their own homes on their own time. Have the ballots signed and delivered to secured boxes, and you can skip the ‘force to vote’ thing.

  8. UncleBucky says:

    Not voting is unthinkable. Not voting to spite the election process is unthinking.

    VOTE, wimps. That’s my best advice or warning.

    OK, those who don’t vote… you don’t get to complain anymore.

  9. ToyotaBedZRock says:

    We could just make it so that elections with under 50% turnout are considered invalid. And if your state cannot meet this standard you loose a rep in congress.

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  12. Silver_Witch says:

    Do you have a suggestion for what will fix it – I mean a real solution?

  13. Silver_Witch says:

    Well played sir, very well played.

  14. Silver_Witch says:

    Comrade I have always loved your post and this one is no different. 100% agree!

  15. Silver_Witch says:

    I totally support mandatory voting, and would love to see a NONE OF THE ABOVE, so that those who are required to vote can voice their real opinion and if NONE OF THE ABOVE wins there has to be a new election

    In addition, all election days should be mandatory NON-working days. You know like a national holiday!!!! Yeah Voting Day – We can have election parties and EVERYONE can participate. Great idea!

  16. Mike F says:

    “So, not only do the corporations make us choose between two of their
    candidates, they also make us actually do it, so they can say it’s what
    we really, really want.”

    Our country resembles the old CCCP in so many ways today, I scarcely even recognize her. Your comment reminds me of the news reports of “elections” in the old CCCP, wherein the populace voted for the Communist Party candidates at rates of 99%. The scenario you highlight is essentially the same thing. Without the reforms and advancements in voting, registration, clean elections, etc., mandatory voting amounts to nothing more than a gun to the head, held in concert by the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson, Gates, Soros, Dimon, Clinton(s), Drone-bama, etc. and et al.

  17. Thom Allen says:

    “The cons: Everyone is voting” Well, except for the real cons who are incarcerated or who have been released.

  18. ComradeRutherford says:

    We have two choices in 2016, we can vote for the Republican, Hillary Clinton, or the TeaBircher [name to be selected later].

  19. ComradeRutherford says:

    I don’t have it front of me, but I heard that mail-in (absentee) ballots are considered much easier to defraud that in-person voting…

  20. ComradeRutherford says:

    Photo caption: “President Obama votes for himself in 2012”

    Obama: “Hey! This thing says I just voted for Rmoney!!!”

  21. toto says:

    The National Advisory Board of National
    Popular Vote includes former Congressmen John Anderson (R–Illinois and later
    independent presidential candidate), John Buchanan (R–Alabama), Tom Campbell
    (R–California), and Tom Downey (D–New York), and former Senators Birch Bayh
    (D–Indiana), David Durenberger (R–Minnesota), and Jake Garn (R–Utah).

    Supporters include former Senator Fred Thompson (R–TN), Governor Jim Edgar
    (R–IL), Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO), and former U.S. House Speaker Newt
    Gingrich (R–GA)

    More than 2,110 state legislators (in 50 states) have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the National Popular Vote bill.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 33 state legislative chambers in 22 rural, small, medium, large, Democratic, Republican and purple states with 250 electoral votes, including one house in Arkansas (6), Maine (4), Michigan (16), Nevada (6), New Mexico (5), North Carolina (15), and Oklahoma (7), and both houses in Colorado (9).

  22. Steve Misosky says:

    How did you mistake my endorsing one of Ventura’s ideas for endorsing him? Do you have any comment on voting for NONE OF THE ABOVE?

    Not that it is very likely to happen, but because the two party system has control over the election process, it would be a way for us to get acceptable candidates. A Bush or a Clinton would be a crime against humanity.

  23. FLL says:

    You’re right. It’s obscene that the TV networks make lots of money from elections. Separate the entertainment industry from elections.

  24. Houndentenor says:

    I always vote, but I don’t vote on every line. Some people run unopposed. I’m not voting for the anti-gay douchebag because no Democrat had the balls to pay the fee to get on the ballot. Nor am I choosing between the Teavangelical nutjob Republican and the Conspiracy Theory Loon (this was a real choice on my ballot last year) who believes we are being poisoned by chem trails. No one I vote for one. Not even close, so no it didn’t really matter. I did vote for two ballot initiatives that passed although the state has chosen to ignore one of them anyway so that didn’t matter anyway. At least now I can buy liquor five miles closer to my house than I did before on the rare occasion that I buy any. Someone else’s vote count became larger? That’s the best you can do?

    Here’s an idea for the parties. If you’re sad because of low turnout, try running candidates that aren’t a joke.

  25. PeterC says:

    By not voting, you are permitting some one else’s vote count become larger

  26. PeterC says:

    I would think that this idea would require previously mailed out ballots, with a stamped return envelope. That I would approve.

  27. Naja pallida says:

    Jesse Ventura has a lot of fanciful ideas, and is hardly a bastion of rational thought… unless you’re trying to build a coalition with wing-nut conspiracy theorists.

  28. Steve Misosky says:

    Jesse Ventura has a better idea. Let us vote for NONE OF THE ABOVE. We’re tired of the corrupt system giving us lousy choices.

  29. Jon Green says:


  30. Moderator4 says:

    Toto, everyone has gotten the idea. You have posted essentially the same information over and over again.
    This is your first warning. Keep posting the same thing again, and it will be deleted.
    If it happens again after that, you will be banned.

  31. Bill_Perdue says:

    This is wrongheaded silliness of a magnitude not seen since Prohibition. Nothing can save the Democrats and nothing can save the Republicans.

  32. benb says:

    Santorum and a S Carolina woman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c19-Ac3PnAI

    Everyone should vote ’cause she always has and always will.

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  34. Hue-Man says:

    Sorry, not my intention. In getting to a permanent voters’ list, I included two sources of data that are already in the government’s hands. Add Social Security or Medicare recipients to the data sources. The key is to eliminate the GOP vote suppression antics.

    Here’s how the Canadian federal income tax return updates the federal voters’ list: bottom of page 1. http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/E/pbg/tf/5010-r/5010-r-14e.pdf

  35. nicho says:

    And also have voting over several days — maybe even a week.

    Right now, voting and tallying is crammed into a few hours — all for the benefit of a television reality-show extravaganza. It shouldn’t be goddam entertainment. Give people an opportunity to cast their ballots and then make sure ALL ballots are counted before results are announced. Screw the networks.

  36. nicho says:

    You’ve gone on ad infinitum before. If it has a chance of leveling the playing field, it will never be allowed by the people who benefit by the system being rigged. It won’t happen.

  37. nicho says:

    The numbers are meaningless. As you note, the congresscritters represent only the lobbyists who give them the money. Residents in their district are meaningless.

  38. nicho says:

    Then, you’ll exclude many elderly and poor people from voting. Many elderly people give up their driver licenses and, because they make so little money, don’t need to file taxes. Same for a lot of poor people.

  39. nicho says:

    Iraq had mandatory voting under Saddam Hussein. That worked out well. So, not only do the corporations make us choose between two of their candidates, they also make us actually do it, so they can say it’s what we really, really want. It just intensifies the impact of the charade of democracy.

    However, unless you’re going to have someone watch me vote, or mark the ballot so you know how I voted (as Saddam did), you really can’t make me vote. You can make me go to the polling place — or mail in a ballot — but you can’t make me mark anything on it.

  40. Demosthenes says:

    An excellent article, Mr. Green. I completely agree that we should make it as easy as possible for our citizens to vote. I heartily concur that mandatory voting is a bad idea. Someone that doesn’t want to vote, for any reason, shouldn’t be forced to do so. There truly is a “right to be left alone”.

  41. Houndentenor says:

    I think “none of the above” should be a line on every ballot. If that line gets the most votes, then all parties must either submit a new candidate or forfeit their place on the ballot for that election cycle. Leaving the line blank, as I often do because all the candidates are terrible, has no impact on the outcome. We need some way to reign in the crapfest the parties inflict on us in every election.

  42. toto says:

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the majority of Electoral College votes, and thus the presidency, to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by replacing state winner-take-all laws for awarding electoral votes in the enacting states.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of Electoral College votes—that is, enough to elect a President (270 of 538). The candidate receiving the most popular votes from all 50 states (and DC) would get all the 270+ electoral votes of the enacting states.

    The presidential election system, using the 48 state winner-take-all method or district winner method of awarding electoral votes, that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founders. It is the product of decades of change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founders in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. States can, and have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years. Historically, major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).

    Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent
    voters, as well as every demographic group in every state surveyed recently. In the 39 states surveyed, overall support has been in the 67-83% range or higher. – in recent or past closely divided battleground states, in rural states, in small states, in Southern and border states, in big states, and in other states polled.

    Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 33 state legislative chambers in 22 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 250 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.


  43. toto says:

    Under National Popular Vote, every voter, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the state counts and national count.

    National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state. Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don’t matter to their candidate.
    In 2012, 56,256,178 (44%) of the 128,954,498 voters had their vote diverted by the winner-take-all rule to a candidate they opposed (namely, their state’s first-place candidate).

    And now votes, beyond the one needed to get the most votes in the state, for winning in a state are wasted and don’t matter to candidates.

    In 2008, voter turnout in the then 15 battleground states averaged seven points higher than in the 35 non-battleground states.

    In 2012, voter turnout was 11% higher in the 9 battleground states than in the remainder of the country.

    If presidential campaigns polled, organized, visited, and appealed to more than the current 63,000,000 of 314,000,000 Americans, one would reasonably expect that voter turnout would
    rise in 80% of the country that is currently conceded by the minority parties in the states, taken for granted by the dominant party in the states, and ignored by all parties in presidential campaigns.

  44. tedmills says:

    John Oliver did a segment on this some time back and showed the downside of mandatory voting was joke candidates splitting the vote. I think it was in Australia. There was a sense of “I don’t like either of these two idiots, but if you’re gonna force me, I’m gonna write in Sir Lord Tweezer of the Refrigerator Party” etc.

  45. Hue-Man says:

    Combine mandatory voting with mail-in ballots ONLY. Automatic permanent registration through tax returns and driver’s permits. The biggest hurdle today is the gerrymandering of districts – how do you justify forced voting when your vote doesn’t count?

  46. caphillprof says:

    What is the point of anyone being required to vote when those elected to public office do not represent voters but represent campaign contributors and extreme ideologies?

    How can 435 U.S. representatives actually begin to represent 310 million people? In 1789, 1 congressman represented only 58,528 people. In 1850, 1 congressman represented 102,167 people.
    In 1941, 1 congressman represented 303,730 people. Today, 1 congressman represents 713,179 people and growing all the time. Thus is our representation increasingly marginalized.

    And what can compel our Senators and Representatives to act in the best interest of the country as a whole rather than the parochial interests of geography, money and ideology?

  47. Juan Viche says:

    Food for thought and action: Revolution Now! Non-Violently — for Electoral Reform Act of 2015 in Time for 2016

  48. FLL says:

    Instead of mandatory voting…

    Funny, very quotable meme from S1AMER below: “…mandatory make-it-easier-to-vote legislation.”

    All the highlights of Colorado’s sensible voting laws are summarized at this Ballotpedia link, two of which are: everyone has the choice to vote by mail in any election (thus, no need for absentee ballots) and voters can register online (not vote, but register to vote). I can understand some of the arguments against flat-out mandatory voting (as in Australia), but in the context of the current batch of Republican-sponsored voter-suppression tactice, I’m convinced that anyone opposed to Colorado’s voting reforms is up to no good.

  49. S1AMER says:

    No, he wasn’t actually backing mandatory voting, he’s backing more people voting.

    What re really need is more Democrats (including the President) backing mandatory make-it-easier-to-vote legislation. Oregon’s recent move is wonderful — but too few Democrats are really fighting hard against Republican vote-suppression tactics.

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