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.