Compulsory Suffrage

It’s voting season in America and it’s voting season at Sweet Talk. Paul Crider has inveighed against libertarians who dismiss the value of the vote, and Samuel Hammond has declaimed the way libertarians deal with collective action problems like voting. By way of counterpoint, Nathaneal Snow chooses to let others speak, having lost faith in reform.

All speak from a libertarian tradition of one kind or another, which I suspect makes my own proposal anathema to them. I think we should force Americans to the polls.

First the proposal: the form of compulsory voting that I advocate is neither truly compulsory nor truly voting. Under the Australian model, the compulsion is in the form of a nominal fine (AUD 20 or about US$15.50) or the requirement to present a “valid and sufficient” reason for not voting. Likewise, the requirement to “vote”, while presented as such, only really extends to making it to the ballot box; from there you may spoil your ballot to your heart’s content. There are other models (some 26 around the world) but the Australian model is nearest and dearest to my heart.

Why might anyone advocate this approach? There’s a range of reasons, but my preferred ones are largely pragmatic. Voluntary voting is a sort of two-factor voting: (i) can you convince someone to show up and (ii) can you convince them to vote for you? The first roughly maps to intensity of political feeling, the second to your political inclinations. Speed and direction, if you will, which together create velocity at the polls.

The first of these–the willingness to show up–tends to be corrosive. Intensity of political feeling goes hand in hand with more radical political beliefs, and therefore voluntary voting has a structural bias towards polarization. The accompanying rhetoric, ginned up to “motivate the base”, tends to have the same effect.

For the same reasons, single issue voters in a voluntary voting system will have outsize influence in an election. Where policies result in concentrated benefits and diffuse harms (or vice versa), voluntary voting will tend to over-represent the concentrated interests, who will make the extra effort to vote. One might think of the National Rifle Association as exemplary of this tendency, given the relative concentration of gun ownership in the United States, but there are examples on the other side of politics. These effects are especially magnified in off-cycle or smaller-scale US elections (mid terms, municipal elections, school boards, etc.).

The move to compulsory voting would also inoculate the American political system against one particularly anti-democratic tendency: voter suppression. Of course, it’s still possible to argue about voter ID and ballot box fraud in a compulsory voting system, but the stakes are lower (fraud is mathematically less significant) and it cannot be a proxy for voter suppression. Sadly, it doesn’t fix gerrymandering.

It’s also more representative. In one sense that’s completely obvious, given the total expected turnout, but it’s worth remembering that the groups least likely to vote tend to be clustered, for example, among the young or poor. For this reason the move to a compulsory voting appears to result in a broader distribution of government spending (though this is, of course, legitimately contested). An incidental benefit of greater participation also appears to be a more politically informed population, in net terms. We should be cautious about such incidental conclusions–there’s no such thing as a randomized controlled trial for voting systems–but not lose sight of the core benefit: more people cast their votes.

For those who dwell on the (ir)rationality of voting, it also breaks one troubling calculus over the value of a vote. Given any meaningful practical hurdle to voting, the most disadvantaged are least likely to make it to the ballots. Since that depresses turnout among that group, it reduces the likelihood that a bloc of similarly situated voters will be decisive. In turn, the likelihood that any individual will be decisive drops further. The incentive to “defect” rises, and rises again. While in general, I am doubtful that the expected return on voting is what motivates most voters, there seems little reason to diminish it further for particular groups.

Not to mention all the practical hurdles to voting tend to fade when the entire populace is expected–and required–to vote. In Australia voting occurs on a Saturday, voting places are nearby and plentiful, and voters usually enjoy a sausage sandwich straight off the barbie (it’s called a “sausage sizzle”).

Sausages or not, many Americans are unwilling to countenance this kind of governmental compulsion. In some senses, this isn’t altogether surprising – being required to attend a certain place at a certain time (or risk a fine) in service of political goals has a whiff of autocracy about it for those who have never lived the experience. I have, and perhaps it’s correspondingly normal to me. Either way, I can’t see how it can be conceptually distinguished from even run-of-the-mill government interventions in the United States: jury duty, taxes (which, as certain libertarians are keen to remind us, is functionally the same as compelled labor), or even a visit to the DMV. Especially not when conscientious objectors would be taxed less than a parking ticket for their refusal. Australians don’t hate it (in fact, some 70% or so are in favor of continuing compulsory voting) and I see little reason to believe that Americans would ultimately feel any differently.

Would it materially favor a particular party? I am not certain. The conventional wisdom is that higher turnout favors left wing parties, and if you believe voter ID laws are stealth voter suppression by the GOP, that would seem to be vindicated by practice. However, those that have studied the application of compulsory voting to the US seem to believe that only the outcome of very close elections (2000, 2004) would be changed in one direction or the other. It’s certainly possible to change some of the compositional elements of politics (polarization, concentrated interests, etc.) without necessarily changing party-based outcomes. I’m hard-pressed to think it matters either way. In even the most basic democracy, the preferences of the populace at large should be logically prior to the benefits or costs to a given party.

Last and least, there’s the symbolism and the theory. On the governmental side, greater participation is suggestive of a more comprehensive mandate. I offer this argument a little tepidly because I am no absolutist about democracy (I favor, for example, the Westminster system), nor do I think a “mandate”–already a wispy concept–is the missing link for political authority. I do, however, think there is some expressive value to voting, even when compelled, and believe that civic engagement is a muscle that needs to be exercised to grow stronger. The most that really needs to be said in this respect is that compulsory voting is certainly no worse than voluntary voting from the standpoint of political theory.

I am skeptical that a change of this sort will happen in the United States in my lifetime, no matter how many offhand presidential comments it attracts. That said, before something become possible, you first have to believe in it, so in the spirit of reciprocity, perhaps compulsory voting should be Australia’s little light on the hill.

13 thoughts on “Compulsory Suffrage

  1. The suppression points are well-taken, but I don’t think the author is convincing on a) voluntary voting resulting in more polarization or b) intensity of feeling being a bad thing.

    Even though we may have low turnout it often seems like the ones voting are closer to the middle of American politics. This is just anecdotal, but more data needed! I don’t think mandatory voting gives us a GOP that’s more John Kasich than Ted Cruz.

    And I think intensity of voters is unambiguously a good thing. To take the NRA example, if 90% of America is pro-AWB but really pretty meh about it, and 10% of America is really passionate about protecting what they consider to be a right, I think the passion of the minority rights advocates should be accounted for in our public policy.

    This obviously leads to bad outcomes in many cases (agriculture policy) but, well, consequentialism is evil and we who think we are in the right ought to do a better job.

    1. pxdelaney

      These are good points! Thank you!

      With respect to your first point (about polarization), it’s complicated by the fact that undecideds and centrists remain a countervailing influence. This is perhaps why the rhetoric in US elections can seem a little contradictory, as it’s trying to appeal to both base and swinging voters. In contrast, in Australian elections the poles are often considered “rusted on” to a particular party, and are accordingly disregarded in the pursuit of the center. This is perhaps one reason why marriage equality has languished for so long in Australia, but overall I think this aggressive centrism is probably to Australia’s overall benefit. I tend to think that polarization *does* diminish for this reason, but it’s hardly black and white, and it’s difficult to demonstrate in any conclusive scientific fashion.

      Your second point is a far more thoroughgoing philosophical challenge. It’s basically a criticism of weakly-held centrism in favor of (one sort of) intensity-weighted voting. I would point to the distorting effect of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, but that really just leads you back into a sort of consequentialist/utilitarian calculation you explicitly reject. That said, voluntary voting is a pretty bad way to do intensity-weighted voting, as it’s binary (vote/no vote) and also the costs of voting fall unequally across the population. Theoretically, there’s voting systems that allow the allocation of preferences in ways that value intensity (like range voting) in a more internally consistent fashion, but I’m not aware of any that have been implemented.

      I think you’re sorta joking on consequentialism, but I am actually a lot more sympathetic to overall criticisms of consequentialism than I used to be. But when it comes to politics, the utilitarian habit dies hard. I feel like aggregation of preferences is exactly the kind of situation where there are good reasons to stick with it. Liberal rights are a pretty good pressure valve for utilitarian excesses, but a move to intensity-weighting may be throwing out both baby and bathwater.

      1. I’m only sorta joking on consequentialism; that was just to head off the “but the results are better this way” response off at the pass. I *do* think consequentialism is wrong though, and if we’re jumping straight there from here then it’s an argument at an impasse.

        Certainly there might be better ways to do intensity-weighted voting, but that our current system is not the best way to do that doesn’t strike me as a good reason to abandon the concept entirely.

  2. johnthacker

    “but not lose sight of the core benefit: more people cast their votes.”

    It is hard to understand this as the core benefit. I can understand arguments regarding a possibly more representative politics or electorate, but not this.

    I also strongly dispute your claim that intensity of voting is related to extreme viewpoints. This can only be sustained by the sort of studies that assign “moderate” to people who have political opinions which are all extreme, yet extreme opinions picked from different party platform bundles. Their average opinion is moderate, even though they are extreme Left on one issue and extreme Right on another. This set of viewpoints is extremely common among those with a low participation rate. The truly moderate voters vote at a high rate.

    The reason for their low participation is simply that they have extremely mixed opinions of the options presented, and wish that a candidate that they could support appeared. (They often have shared commiseration with people with orthogonal views.) It is for this reason that in say recent state German elections the AfD existing has led to greater participation.

    1. johnthacker

      The Broockman Ahler research is highly relevant here. Donald Trump is a textbook case of the type of non voting “moderate” who actually exists, as they have noted.

      1. pxdelaney

        Thanks John. I’d welcome a little more information on the research you mention so that I can look into it. I don’t currently think that the bulk of those not voting are strong holders of an idiosyncratic set of beliefs. Libertarians, for example, aren’t especially well represented by either of the major parties, but tend to have high-intensity political views, and I’d guess (just a guess!) have higher than average turnout. I suspect that’s true *even though* some libertarians argue that voting is a spurious, irrational, or even evil act. This seems like a testable proposition, but I’m not sure it’s been tested. You may have seen something I haven’t.

        To be clear, I suspect you’re right that a failure to represent a group’s views will tend to depress turnout among that group. I just think it’s a factor, rather than the leading explanation for low turnout. But even if you are right–and this is far more significant than I believe–would that be an argument against compulsory voting? Presumably there are at least some high intensity voters at the left/right poles that result in polarization in a two-party system, and it would be beneficial to prevent that distortion of the system.

        I should also clarify – “more people cast their votes” did mean “more representational”. I was circling back to the first line of that same paragraph, and attempting to return to that point rather than be drawn into incidental and more speculative benefits like distribution of spending or education of the polis.

      2. Here’s a link to one of their papers, “Does Elite Polarization Imply Poor Representation?”. They’ve tested this by contacting citizens; not only do people have extreme views, but given a mixed bag of extreme R and extreme D views, they express preference politicians who line up straight R or D platform to a “moderate” politicians who don’t line up with their preferred idiosyncratic collection of extreme views.

        In other words, these “moderate” voters are *at least as well served* (both theoretically and in their own expressed tested opinions) by polarized politicians than they would be by moderate politicians (either of the “compromise positions everywhere” or someone also with a blend of positions– imagine a libertarian representing an old-style Southern Dem). In the absence of a PR type system, it doesn’t seem like it would reduce polarization. In the presence of a PR system, it would be likely to produce *more poles* though it’s possible that inevitable politician coalition negotiations would result in compromise. (The European experience does indicate that long standing extremist parties frozen outside grand coalitions might arise, though.)

      3. johnthacker

        I agree that it’s an important point to study about whether these kinds of “moderate” voters (i.e., extremists who don’t line up in a typical party platform because they select from both sides) vote less than the “true moderates” who hold compromise positions, but I suspect that they do.

        In a related manner, regarding your libertarian point– I associate libertarian views with the young (with whom I also associate having extreme views, though possibly in a mixed bag of choices) and the young are certainly less likely to vote and more likely to support third parties. Complicating the matter are self-styled libertarians who do not hold any sort of libertarian view, along with the large number of old-style conservative/Southern Dem voters among the elderly who do vote and form the backbone of Trump supporters (as well as party switchers of the last few decades.)

  3. pxdelaney

    John – Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out. I agree these dynamics are very different when you pair them with proportional representation, and I basically assumed a FPTP system for this note. FPTP voting vs PR is a briar patch I’m not yet ready to dive into!

    Likewise, fair point on the mixed use of the label “libertarian”. I think as it becomes more popular, usage is getting less coherent, but that’s not an unusual phenomenon.

    1. Yes, it’s a very common phenomenon that as a political term becomes more popular, usage gets less coherent. One notable example is the use in continental Europe of “socialist” for nearly anyone in the broad center-left coalition, even people who are social democrats or even liberals (social or otherwise), and conversely in the US the use of “liberal” by everyone in the broad center-left coalition, even people who are fairly illiberal (democratic) socialists and progressives. This, as we know, leads to some ridiculous attempts at definitional point scoring because of different usages.

  4. How about randomly picking a tiny representative subset of voters to participate in each election – electoral juries – instead? So, rather of forcing ~240M eligible voters to vote, tell 5,000 people they’re on this year’s panel.

    Once they know their special role, the motivation to be informed, and vote, will be quite large. You could even award them a generous stipend for showing up, and investigate individually any allegations of suppression or corruption! The effects on representativeness and moderation could be similar to compulsory voting, at much lower costs.

    Yes, it superficially disconnects those-not-chosen from the rituals of voting, and the duties to be-informed or cast-ballots. But it’s possible people would see the empaneling-process as fair and representative – indeed more inclusive of ‘people like them’ than voluntary voting, with its vagaries of voting-rates and costs-of-informed-participation. And the process of influencing the panel could involve far more sophisticated discussion than mass-media campaigning around 30-second TV ads and engineered news-hooks. It might thus be even more interesting and inspiring to the general public!

    1. pxdelaney

      It’s an interesting idea, but I see at least a few obvious problems. First is sampling – it would be phenomenally difficult to to get anything approaching a representative sample, and it would likely be criticized as such. Second, I am not entirely convinced the discussion would become more sensible – I suspect instead that personal attacks involving individual panel members would be the order of the day. Finally, it’s hard to argue for a democratic mandate (other than, perhaps, as a statistical matter). These are really just off the top of my head thoughts, though – it’s hard to know how this would play out and I see where you’re going with the idea. Has some interesting analogies to juries, though I have lots of problems with those as well.

      1. If you can enumerate everyone eligible, to impose a ‘soft compulsion’, representativeness is easy: just pick N of the people from those rolls at random. Especially as N gets large – in the thousands – representativeness within certain bounds becomes assured.

        While I do see a risk of blackmail/bribes of panel members – which I believe the small scale and focused attention can mitigate – I don’t see a reason for ‘personal attacks’ to come into things. Maybe 20% of the panel are despicable people, because 20% of the broader population is, too. Doesn’t really matter, they were eligible for the franchise in our current system, or ‘forced’ in the compulsory system, or eligible in the electoral-jury system – they get a say, and insulting them is unlikely to sway them towards the insulters’ agenda. (They’re not running for anything!)

        The existing mandate is already pretty flimsy on logical grounds, given participation rates and the gigantic barriers that the two-party duopoly and byzantine primaries system place on broader representation. It’s just tradition and the fact it seems “good enough” that maintains consent. If people saw electoral juries as including *more* people like them than usual voter rolls – perhaps because after a few election cycles they wind up knowing personally a number of electors, especially among communities with really low participation currently – it could seem more legitimate/representative. If the deliberative process provoked a different kind of candidate to compete and win, they might find their faith in the system less undermined by the slash-and-burn of mass-media populist politics.

        The process is cheap enough, if it deadlocks – say, no one candidate is preferred by more than the margin-of-error implied by the subsampling process – you could run it again! But the panel is also small enough that you can do perfect ‘straw polls’ as the campaign proceeds, to understand likely outcomes. Pollsters can compare the panel’s non-final balloting with polls of non-selected people. At the outset, it’s essentially statistically assured the difference is negligible, but as the campaigns proceed, the panel’s changing opinions are a direct readout on what effect focused information and motivation can have. Maybe at the end, the 5,000 have ‘unrepresentative’ views – but it should be in exactly in the same way that the 240M would drift, if they had the same endowment of information and influence. (And if such focused process wouldn’t work to improve voters’ interest and competence – achieving better governance through more thoughtful voting – what hope is there for ‘throwing every distracted voter’ at the problem through broad compulsion?)

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