Throughout American history, minority and marginalized groups have fought for their right to vote, using enfranchisement as a bellwether for inclusion and acceptance in society. But now that every citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote, voter turnout rates are some of the lowest across developed countries, with the turnout rate in 2016 being just 61%. This low voter turnout enables politicians to focus only on enacting policies that appeal to likely voter groups such as the wealthy and elderly, not their entire constituency. In order to fulfill the true intention of our democracy, all eligible US citizens should be automatically registered and required to vote.
Mandatory voting has resulted in high voter turnout rates in countries such as Belgium and Australia. More importantly, citizens in countries that implement mandatory voting are more likely to view voting as a civic responsibility, and thus they feel more responsible for the wellbeing of their nations. American citizens have become complacent in their own responsibilities, and low voter turnout is just one example of it. With everyone required to vote, all Americans would realize that their voice matters, leading them to take more pride in our democracy.
Arguments that mandatory voting would result in an uninformed electorate, people voting based only on one issue, or simply by party name represent gatekeeping by the country’s educated, powerful, and already politically involved. In fact, according to some research, many current voters who claim membership in a political party hold positions that are opposite the official party stance, essentially nullifying this argument against compulsory voting. The claims of prominent professors and journalists that every American exercising their right to vote will result in ill informed voters “inflicting harm on us by making poor choices and incentivizing politicians to cater to their ignorance,” unfairly values one person’s vote over another. Fears that those that will benefit from mandatory voting will be right wing, xenophobic, or conservative candidates are largely unfounded and over exaggerated, and again are marks of some groups, mainly the wealthy and educated, trying to influence the nation’s democracy. Likewise, claims that mandatory voting will overwhelmingly benefit Democrats, as the majority of those who do not vote right now are members of groups that traditionally vote Democrat, are also unfounded.
Rather than give a certain political party an advantage, mandatory voting would force both the Democrats and Republicans to try to broaden their appeal, therefore becoming more representative of the country as a whole. Further, arguments that the right not to vote is just as important as the right to vote, or that a person should not have to vote if they do not believe in a candidate, are easily remedied by the ability to cast a blank ballot, as is allowed in other countries that practice mandatory voting, such as Australia.
In practice, changes would have to be made to the American voting system in order to make mandatory voting feasible. Citizens would have to be automatically registered to vote when they turned 18, and reasons for exemption from voting such as illness or travel would have to be established. Election Day might even need to be moved to a weekend, or treated as a national holiday in order to make it possible for all to vote. As the goal is not to create another system that unfairly targets low income individuals, the penalties for failing to vote would have to be minimal, just as they are in other countries. Despite these limitations, as we aim for greater civic engagement in the United States, mandatory voting is an obvious first step to making sure our democracy includes not only the politically active, but also the everyday citizens.