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Civics in Action
August 2020

Should Voting Be Mandatory?

 

 

By Brooke Ross

Should Americans Have to Vote?

Debate: Should Voting Be Mandatory in the U.S.?

You’re probably hearing a lot of people talk about who they’ll vote for on Election Day. But chances are, millions of Americans will decide not to vote. In 2016, only about 60 percent of the people who could have voted for president actually did.

Many people say that’s a problem. Our elected leaders are supposed to represent the interests of all Americans. But that can’t happen if so many citizens don’t vote. One solution is to make voting mandatory, or required, in the United States. That has worked in Australia. Its voter turnout is about 90 percent in most elections. Australians who fail to vote have to pay a fine of $20.

Not everyone is ready to vote “yes” for mandatory voting, however. Many people argue that requiring Americans to vote won’t guarantee that the best candidates get elected. They say people who don’t want to vote are less likely to learn about the candidates and their views.

Here’s what two students think about mandatory voting.

Only about 60 percent of eligible voters—roughly 139 million Americans—cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, including just 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds. While 53 percent of the voting-age population voted in the 2018 midterm elections—a record high for midterm turnout—millions of eligible voters still stayed home on Election Day.

That’s a major problem, says Barry C. Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Voting is how politicians hear from their constituents,” he explains. “If only [about 50 percent] of people are participating, it means politicians will be listening more to some people than others.”

Many people say that requiring citizens to vote would let more Americans’ voices be heard. (Voting is currently compulsory, or mandatory, in about 25 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, and Peru.) Plus, supporters of that idea say, voting is one of our civic responsibilities.

But other people argue that forcing citizens to cast ballots would be un-American. They say that a better way to address low voter turnout would be to make it easier for people to register to vote or have Election Day on a weekend instead of a Tuesday.

Should voting be mandatory in the United States? Here’s what two experts have to say.

YES!

Asa Johnson, Maryland

YES

Voting is one of our most important rights. African Americans and women fought for years to gain that right in the U.S. And in some countries, people still face barriers, or difficulties, when trying to vote. People who can vote but don’t are taking that right for granted.

But voting is more than a right—it’s also a responsibility. Many people aren’t happy with our leaders, but a lot of those same people don’t vote. If voting were required, it would encourage everybody to make sure their voices are heard.

Everyone should be required by law to vote. Democracy doesn’t work if a large portion of the population doesn’t participate.

Mandatory voting is the best way to encourage politicians to focus their attention on all Americans, not just the middle and upper classes. Because wealthier Americans are more likely to vote, government policies are disproportionately geared toward their interests. Unfortunately, the people who most often fail to vote are the ones who are already left behind—the poor, the unemployed, the less educated, and the homeless.

If voting were mandatory in the U.S., people would be inspired to pay more attention to campaigns—and current events. Compulsory voting would also allow candidates to spend less time getting voters to the polls and more on explaining where they stand on key issues.

Australia has had mandatory voting for federal elections since 1924. People who don’t cast ballots have to pay a fine of about $20. As a result, about 94 percent of eligible voters turn out. On top of that, perhaps because more people are involved in choosing their representatives, Australians tend to have higher levels of trust in their government than Americans have in theirs. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, only about 22 percent of Americans have a high level of trust in the federal government.

Voting is more than a right—it’s a responsibility. If Americans want their government to truly be of the people, by the people, and for the people, everyone has to go to the polls on Election Day.


—LISA HILL

Professor of Politics and International Studies, University of Adelaide, Australia


NO!

Marysia Salabaj, Illinois

NO

Voting is an important right, but it’s also a choice. Our country is built on the idea of freedom. Forcing someone to vote takes away that freedom.

Rather than requiring people to vote or punishing them for not voting, we should find ways to encourage them to pick our leaders. For example, it’s hard for many people to take time off work to stand in line at the polls. If Election Day were a national holiday, more people would have time to go vote.

The government shouldn’t force people to vote. Doing so would flood the polls with millions of uninformed voters. Some Americans know a lot about politics, economics, foreign affairs, and current events. Others know hardly anything. Requiring uninformed people to vote would be like forcing them to fly an airplane or perform surgery without training.

Elections have high stakes. Our votes help influence matters of war and peace, poverty and prosperity, justice and injustice—not just in the U.S., but all over the world. Bad decisions at the polls can result in devastating wars, damaging laws, and disastrous economic policies.

Some people argue that voting is a civic responsibility. In my view, Americans who choose not to vote can exercise their civic duties in other ways, such as volunteering to help their communities or serving on a jury. But if they do vote, they owe it to themselves—and others—to be informed about the issues on the ballot.

Furthermore, having a right to do something doesn’t mean you should be required to do it. For instance, we have the right to write novels or do science experiments, but it would be a violation of our individual freedom if the government forced us to do those things. Why should voting be any different?

There are better ways to fix low voter turnout in the U.S. One option is to make it easier for people to register to vote. We could also lengthen the hours the polls are open or have Election Day on a weekend instead of a Tuesday. Such changes would be more effective—and more democratic—than forcing people to vote whether they want to or not.


—JASON BRENNAN

Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.



Words to Know:


constituents


(n) the people who live and vote in an area