The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

President Obama endorses mandatory voting


In a recent speech, President Obama endorsed the idea of making voting mandatory. It isn't clear whether he intends to actively push the idea. But he does suggest that it would be an improvement over the status quo:

President Obama on Wednesday suggested that if U.S. voters want to counter the outsized influence of money in politics, it might be a good idea to adopt mandatory voting.

"Other countries have mandatory voting," Mr. Obama said at a town hall-style event in Cleveland, Ohio, citing places like Australia. "It would be transformative if everybody voted—that would counteract money more than anything."

The president continued, "The people who tend not to vote are young, they're lower income, they're skewed more heavily toward immigrant groups and minorities… There's a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls."

For reasons I summarized in 2012, in response to a defense of compulsory voting by former Obama adviser Peter Orszag, making voting mandatory is likely to do more harm than good.

As noted in my 2012 post, mandatory voting would exacerbate the already severe problem of voter ignorance. While the differences are not enormous, people who currently don't vote are on average less interested in political issues and more ignorant than those who do. Political theorist Jason Brennan presents more evidence along these lines in his part of the excellent recent book Compulsory Voting: For and Against.

In his speech, President Obama claimed that mandatory voting would diminish the significance of money in politics. The opposite effect is more likely. Most campaign spending represents expenditures on televised ads. For fairly obvious reasons, relatively ignorant voters are more likely to be influenced by simplistic 30 second ads than relatively well-informed ones (who, among other things, tend to have stronger preexisting views). Thus, a more ignorant electorate is likely to be one where campaign spending on television ads exercises more influence. I don't think the influence of money on politics is either as great or as harmful as President Obama and many other liberals do. But if you disagree with me on that, you may have even more reason to oppose mandatory voting than I do.

Like other defenders of compulsory voting, the president touts the example of Australia, which is indeed a generally well-governed nation that has a compulsory voting law. But the full list of nations with compulsory voting is not one that inspires confidence. It includes such paragons of civic virtue as Argentina, Egypt, Congo, and Lebanon. By contrast, one of the few democracies with lower turnout rates than the United States is Switzerland, which is often considered one of the best-governed nations in the world. I don't claim that Argentina and Egypt have bad governments and Switzerland a good one because of their respective voting laws. My point is merely that there is no clear correlation between turnout and good governance.

In addition to its potentially harmful consequences, mandatory voting is also an unjust infringement on individual liberty. Some people choose not to vote because they find the available options so distasteful that they don't want to be in the position of supporting any of them. Even if the ballot includes some sort of "none of the above" option, choosing to vote might still be viewed as at least a partial endorsement of the status quo political system, and some citizens might prefer not to signal any such endorsement. It is debatable whether this is the correct approach to an election with terrible options. I personally believe that is still usually best to vote for the lesser of the available evils. But the opposing view is not unreasonable, and those who act on it don't deserve to be punished by the government for doing so.

Others can reasonably choose to abstain from voting because they lack the knowledge to make a well-informed choice and (quite rightly) don't want to harm the rest of society by making ignorant decisions. Given the vast size and complexity of modern government, even intelligent and conscientious people will sometimes find themselves in that position. Finally, many people might prefer not to vote simply because they have better uses for their time, including in some cases uses that create more benefit for society, as well as themselves. Jason Brennan discusses this latter scenario in greater detail in The Ethics of Voting.

Liberal Democratic advocates of compulsory voting are in part motivated by the hope that it will generate increased turnout among young people and racial minorities, thereby securing more electoral victories for their party. But Democratic strategists' hopes for a bonanza of extra votes in that quarter are matched by GOP hopes for higher turnout among working class whites, who in recent elections have tended to back Republicans, but also have relatively low turnout rates. In addition, as Brennan emphasizes, lower-class and less-educated voters tend to be more socially conservative as well as more economically left-wing. Thus, even if increased turnout within this group gave the Democrats more victories, the resulting Democratic Party would likely be more socially conservative.

The net partisan and ideological effect of mandatory voting is thus difficult to predict, especially once we consider the potential impact of both parties' adopting new campaign strategies to account for the fact that they will be facing an even more ignorant electorate than at present. One particularly dangerous possibility is that both parties will tend to cater more to the less knowledgeable parts of their respective bases, since those groups would be a higher percentage of the total electorate. If that happens, we could all be net losers from compulsory voting, regardless of whether we currently prefer the Democrats to the Republicans or vice versa.

I do not want to overstate the case. Because the current electorate already has very low levels of political knowledge, mandatory voting is likely to make things "only" modestly worse. Just as the case of Switzerland demonstrates that you can have good government with very low turnout levels, Australia shows that you can have a relatively well-governed nation with compulsory voting. But, at the very least, we should not restrict citizens' liberty unless there is strong reason to believe that doing so will benefit society. And we certainly shouldn't do so when the most likely result is to make the already serious problem of voter ignorance even worse than it already is.