Mandatory Voting Is a Terrible—And Insulting—Idea

The political parties have no right to demand our stamp of approval for their elections.


You're only encouraging them.
Credit: ** RCB ** / photo on flickr

Toward the end of a speech and Q&A session (about an hour and 10 minutes in) in Cleveland yesterday, President Barack Obama spoke a bit about reforming elections, complaining about money in politics, gerrymandering, and the Citizens United decision. One "short term" solution he floated was to make voting mandatory, holding up Australia as an example.

"It would be transformative if everybody voted," he said. "That would counter money more than anything."

No, it wouldn't, not really. Well, first of all, let's backtrack to the idea. Mandatory voting is a violation of our civil rights, just as denying a citizen a right to vote is a violation. Casting a vote is speech. It is showing support or opposition to a candidate or proposal. Making voting mandatory means voting is no longer a right. It's an obligation. It's forced speech. If we were forced to attend a church, but had a choice of several churches, we would still (most of us, anyway) recognize that this is a violation of our freedom to decline to practice religion at all. Not voting isn't just an expression of apathy. It's also a form of protest.

Second, when it comes to campaigning, mandatory voting would indeed probably make the race cheaper—but only for incumbents and entrenched politicians. Institutional inertia benefits incumbents tremendously, and they're rarely tossed out of office. Obama complained about all the television ads during election season. Imagine what it would be like to attempt to challenge an incumbent as an outsider in an environment where you have to assume that everybody is going to vote. How much more money would challengers have to spend to try to reach even more people to counter the natural advantages of incumbents? It's the same problem with attempting to restrict campaign spending. Because incumbents have a history and years of essentially free press covering his or her work in office, challengers sometimes have to be able to raise and spend more to compete against them, assuming the incumbent doesn't have a history of failure, scandal, and incompetence. There's a reason the phrase "the devil you know" gets invoked so frequently when talking about politicians and elections.

Third, Australia's parliamentary system is completely different from America's. They have a proportional voting system, not a "winner takes all" system. Their voting process is very complicated, with voters ranking candidates by preference. Australia has more than two political parties with representation in its parliament, and the voting system sometimes results in the creation of ruling coalitions (right now it's a group of center-right political parties). Comparing America's voting system to Australia's is as silly as comparing it to North Korea's, but for different reasons.

Australia's complicated voting system helped lead to the election of Australia's first libertarian senator, David Leyonhjelm. Despite nominally benefiting from mandatory voting and a prime spot near the top of the ballot, Leyonhjelm blasted mandatory voting in an interview with Reason: "We argue that we have a right to vote, and it's not a right if you get fined for not doing it. So it becomes an obligation, like paying your taxes. You don't have a right to pay your taxes; you have an obligation to pay your taxes, and you get penalized if you don't do it. Voting is in the same category: To pretend it's a right when you can be prosecuted for not doing it is ridiculous."

Here in America, the Democrats and Republicans do everything in their power to keep candidates like Leyonhjelm off the ballots, which would make mandatory voting the equivalent of finding your local convenience store coolers stocked with nothing but Coke and Pepsi. In California, the state has instituted a top-two-only run-off open primary system for many races, and in November's election, in six Congressional races, voters in those districts only had the choice between two candidates from the same party. Would you like Coke or Diet Coke?

Obama would have us believe that mandatory voting somehow gives more power to the citizenry, but in fact, it treats the citizenry as the servants of the political parties. Recall last fall when operatives for political parties sent out sinister messages to voters warning them that whether they voted or not was a public record and that they would be "interested to hear" why somebody might not have voted. As I said at the time, these methods absolve the political parties of having to find better candidates that would actually inspire people to go to the polls. Imagine what sort of insipid, lackluster candidates we'll get in mandatory elections and what they'll say or do or promise to try to get the support of people who currently do not feel enough interest to even bother.  

To bounce back to Australia for a moment, today Leyonhjelm is reintroducing his bill to try to legalize gay marriage recognition down under. Part of the process of getting this legislation passed in Australia is convincing one of the coalition parties to allow its legislators to have a conscience vote, meaning these men and women will decide how to vote rather than the party. Even though polls show Australians are in favor of gay marriage recognition in higher numbers than here in the United States, Leyonhjelm has to lobby for members of one party to vote how they want to vote, not how the party tells them they have to vote.

And finally, for obvious reasons, Obama fails to engage in why special interests spend so much money on elections in the first place: The federal government is very, very powerful, and it has grown in size and scope under him. The federal government has its hooks in every single thing we do as citizens and in every single thing every business does as well. Election turnouts aren't going to change this. It might even heighten it if candidates end up promising all sorts of new programs to appeal to voters who would have otherwise not even bothered under the current system. The Obama administration and its agencies' willingness to regulate just about anything under the sun fosters an environment where not only does it pay off for labor and corporate interests to spend money to influence incomes, sometimes it's—well—mandatory.