Can Mandatory Voting Save American Politics?

Source: Thinkstock

In at least 22 countries — from Australia to Brazil to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to North Korea — voting (in some form) in elections is compulsory, meaning that if citizens fail to cast a ballot, the  government will take punitive action. Australian non-voters are met with a letter from the electoral commission requesting a reason for their absenteeism.

Brazil and Peru ban non-voters from certain activities, including applying for passports. A few countries, like Belgium and Costa Rica, have mandatory voting laws on the books, but they are seldom, if ever, enforced. Meanwhile, countries like Ecuador excuse illiterate citizens, and Brazil does not require members of the military to vote.

Proponents of compulsory voting claim that the institution of democracy is far too important for citizens to fail to participate. That argument has resonance in the United States, where voter participation has averaged below 60 percent in every single election since 1968 — even falling to 57.5 percent of eligible voters in the 2012 presidential election — while the public’s faith in congressional lawmakers has sunk to a new low of 7 percent, and President Barack Obama’s approval rating stands at a less-than-impressive 41 percent.

In the United States, the problem is not only that voter turnout is low but that it is socially biased, as well. Those Americans who fail to vote are typically already disadvantaged, and this means voting power is concentrated in the well-off demographic.