A Feasible Roadmap to Compulsory Voting

The policy has been dismissed as an impossible pipe dream, but, if applied at the municipal level first, that could change.

Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Not enough people vote. It’s a perennial source of concern in American politics. There’s no shortage of reforms designed to address the problem, but one idea that seems particularly promising, at least in theory, is compulsory voting. It would produce much higher turnout for the obvious reason that it requires people to vote. It’s long been dismissed, though, as an impossible pipe dream, unlikely to ever happen in the United States. But if reformers were to start at the municipal level, they could set into motion forces that might lead to its nationwide adoption.

Start with some statistics: In years with presidential elections, voter turnout peaks at just above 60 percent. In off-year elections, turnout dips to 40 percent or less. In November 2014, only 36 percent of eligible voters went to the polls—the lowest share in more than 70 years. Participation this paltry calls into question the political system’s legitimacy. It also hints that election outcomes might be quite different if more people bothered to show up.

There are many policies that, if implemented, would increase turnout. Extended early and absentee voting would lengthen the period for casting ballots. Automatic voter registration would add drivers to the rolls when they apply for licenses. And moving Election Day to Saturday would make it easier for full-time employees to participate. But the most obvious way to get more people to vote doesn’t attract nearly enough attention. It’s to oblige people to vote.

Compulsory voting isn’t as draconian as it sounds. No one is dragged to the polls against his or her will, and no one is thrown in jail for refusing to cast a ballot. Instead, a modest fine (about $20 in Australia) is levied on people who fail to show up and have no good excuse for their absence. There also isn’t any danger of political speech being compelled—a no-no under the First Amendment. People are free to do what they like with their ballots, including turning them in blank.

To find out what effect compulsory voting has on turnout, I used data from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance to compare participation rates in countries that do and don’t require voting. Between 1945 and 2015, turnout hovered around 85 percent in compulsory voting countries (like Australia, Belgium, and Brazil). But it fell from 75 percent  to 65 percent in countries with voluntary voting. Results like these may be why President Obama recently said, “If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country.”

Turnout in Countries With Compulsory vs. Voluntary Voting

Nicholas Stephanopoulos / Data: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

There is an air of unreality, though, to proposals to import compulsory voting to the United States. They resemble, at first glance, several other ideas favored by goo-goo reformers but by few others: proportional representation, public financing of elections, and the like. It’s hard to imagine a gridlocked Washington, vote-suppressing red states, or even risk-averse blue states, passing any of these laws.

But compulsory voting actually has a viable path to enactment. The trick is to harness the partisanship that runs through U.S. politics, and to exploit the system’s multiple levels of government. First Democrats and then Republicans, first at the local and then at the state or federal level, could be induced to support the policy.

To start, a blue city in a purple state—such as Miami, Florida, Columbus, Ohio, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—would have to adopt compulsory voting for its own elections. Its elections would also have to be held on the first Tuesday in November, allowing voters to cast ballots in municipal, state, and federal elections at the same time.

Why would the city make this switch? Partly to save money; it’s cheaper to administer one election than two or three. Partly because higher participation is itself a democratic good. But also for the sake of partisan advantage. Registered non-voters lean substantially more Democratic than registered voters. If they were required to go to the polls, election outcomes would shift markedly to the left.

At this point, redder jurisdictions would face enormous pressure to follow the blue city’s lead. Not doing so would award the Democrats an electoral bonanza: a surge in turnout in their urban stronghold unmatched by greater participation in suburbs and exurbs. To get a sense of how strong the Republicans’ incentive would be, think back to the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, both of which came down to a single swing state. Bush prevailed in Florida and again in Ohio. But he likely wouldn’t have won if Miami and Columbus had required all their eligible voters to go to the polls.

Importantly, it’s easier for a single city to adopt compulsory voting than for myriad suburbs and exurbs to follow suit. This collective action problem is why compulsory voting probably wouldn’t stay at the local level for long. Red states, in particular, would find it in their interest to impose statewide voting mandates. By requiring all eligible voters to participate, they would stop a few blue municipalities from benefiting at the expense of the many red ones. And once red states jumped on the bandwagon, it’s unlikely that blue states—or the federal government—would lag far behind.

Are there problems with this plan? Sure. For one, blue cities may not want to switch to compulsory voting. Higher turnout may be good for Democrats in the abstract, but it’s not necessarily good for current incumbents. For another, red states could respond to the blue city experiments by banning compulsory voting. From their perspective, statewide bans may be preferable to statewide mandates since lower turnout tends to favor Republicans.

But these issues aren’t deal breakers. Mayors and city council members are reelected at extremely high rates. So some of them might be willing to tolerate a bit more electoral uncertainty for the sake of reduced cost, enhanced legitimacy, and partisan gain. If local officials remain reluctant to roll the dice, Democrats in state and federal offices (who have the most to gain from compulsory voting) could assuage their fears by dangling the usual rewards for political cooperation: campaign funds, endorsements, appointments, and the like.

And if red states were to ban compulsory voting, they might run into constitutional problems. In recent cases, courts have been skeptical of states’ efforts to eliminate local policies aimed at increasing turnout. It would also take unified Republican control of the state government for a ban to be feasible. Such control is absent in swing states like Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. And many states grant “home rule” (or broad policymaking authority) to their towns and counties. State interference with local electoral choices is suspect under this regime.

Compulsory voting, then, is not as far-fetched an idea as it might seem. For it to take root in America, all that’s necessary is for a single city (in the right state) to take the plunge. Partisan forces would then promote the policy’s rapid spread. And the same dynamic would apply not just to compulsory voting, but to any turnout-boosting policy a city might adopt. So to transform American politics, the best advice might be to forget about the national picture—and instead, think local.