There are a number of reasons that we in the U.S. find ourselves with a madman at the helm. Certainly, the Russian connection played a role, though it remains to be seen just how much of a role. James Comey, perhaps pressured by another, played a role. Voter laws that disenfranchised members of certain groups had a role. But perhaps the largest reason was voter apathy … many were simply too lazy or too disgusted with both candidates to take an hour out of their year to go vote.
Only about 25% of eligible voters voted for Donald Trump. Let that one sink in for a moment. About ¼ of citizens over the age of 18 voted for Trump, yet he now sits in the Oval Office. Voter turnout in the 2016 election was only around 55%.* Barely half of all those who had the opportunity to make their voices heard chose to do so. That, my friends, is pathetic. It should be criminal … and in some places it is.
In Australia, voting is compulsory for federal and state elections for citizens aged 18 and above. A postal vote is available for those for whom it is difficult to attend a polling station. Early, or pre-poll, voting at an early voting centre is also available for those who might find it difficult to get to a polling station on election day. Eligible citizens who fail to vote at a State election and do not provide a valid and sufficient reason for such failure, will be fined. The penalty for first time offenders is $20, and this increases to $50 if you have previously paid a penalty or been convicted of this offense.
While compulsory voting is not widespread around the globe, there are 22 countries with mandatory voting laws on the books, of which 11 actually enforce said laws. In most cases, penalties for failure to vote are minimal, a slap on the wrist, but the law does compel most to vote. Higher voter turnout leads to governments with more stability, legitimacy and a genuine mandate to govern. Let us look at some of the pros and cons of compulsory voting.
- A higher degree of political legitimacy: the victorious candidate therefore represents a majority of the population.
- High levels of participation decreases the risk of political instability created by crises or charismatic demagogues.
- Removes obstacles for minorities and other marginalized groups who are typically disenfranchised by voter laws.
- Makes it more difficult for extremist or special interest groups to get themselves into power or to influence mainstream candidates. If fewer people vote, then it is easier for lobby groups to motivate a small section of the people to the polls and influence the outcome of the political process.
- Since campaign funds are not needed to goad voters to the polls, the role of money in politics decreases.
- It is essentially a compelled speech act, which violates freedom of speech because the freedom to speak necessarily includes the freedom not to speak.
- People do not wish to be compelled to vote for a candidate they have no interest in or knowledge of.
- Certain religions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, may be against political participation.
I believe the ‘pros’ far outweigh the ‘cons’, and the arguments against compulsory voting are easy enough to overcome. A system for compulsory voting may include an exclusion based on religious beliefs. I have no sympathy with the argument that people may not have knowledge of a candidate. Perhaps 50, or even 20 years ago I might have, but today, with the touch of a button people can educate themselves about the candidates and their platforms. To fail to do so is simply a matter of laziness. When it comes to not liking either candidate, there may be an option on the ballot to select ‘none of the above’. At least in this case, it is understood that the voter is making a statement, stating a preference.
As for the argument that it may infringe on a person’s right to free speech, I would claim that along with rights come responsibilities. The right to vote is equally a responsibility to participate in the election of the people whose decisions will affect every person within the country. Voter apathy is either not caring or being too lazy to spend one hour a year going to the polls to make your voice heard. Voter fatigue, however, is something entirely different, and I believe that it was this, more than anything, that led to the low turnout in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The campaign began in earnest in July 2015, and from that time forward we were subjected to almost non-stop debates, media coverage, rallies, political advertisements, and divisive vitriol. Campaigns and election seasons have become almost non-stop, as we have seen by the fact that Trump is already campaigning for re-election in 2020. I would very much like to see a moratorium on all campaign advertisements and events until three months prior to the actual election.
One final argument in favour of compulsory voting is that it is likely to lead to more moderate, less extremist candidates winning office. According to political scientist, Waleed Aly:
“In a compulsory election, it does not pay to energize your base to the exclusion of all other voters. Since elections cannot be determined by turnout, they are decided by swing voters and won in the center… That is one reason Australia’s version of the far right lacks anything like the power of its European or American counterparts. Australia has had some bad governments, but it hasn’t had any truly extreme ones and it isn’t nearly as vulnerable to demagogues.”
While I understand that, especially in today’s political climate, it is highly unlikely we will adopt a system of mandatory voting, I would be in full support of such a measure. The current system under which only 25% of the population selected the leader whose chaotic leadership is wreaking havoc in our nation makes our system far less of a democracy than we believe. (I found an interesting breakdown by state of voter turnout in the 2016 election.)
Compulsory voting would solve only a part of the problem with U.S. elections. The other two remaining issues that render our current system less than fully representative of the population are gerrymandering and the electoral college. An overhaul of both these would certainly lead to more representative outcomes, but until every person who is eligible to vote chooses to do so, We The People will continue to be led by leaders who were not elected by the majority of the citizenry, but rather the most outspoken.
* Interestingly, the highest voter turnout in the past two decades was in 2008, when 62.2% of voters participated in the election of Barack Obama.