May 21, 2019

Is Voting a Right or a Duty?

“Voter turnout could hit a 50-year record for the 2018 midterm elections.

Yet, even if 50 to 60 percent of eligible voters show up at the polls this year, that number will still be very low in comparison to most other developed countries’ turnout statistics. In the 2016 general election, turnout was 55.7 percent, which placed the U.S. 26th out of 32 highly developed democratic countries.

One solution gets a lot of attention right after every election cycle as a response to the abysmally low turnout numbers: make voting mandatory. Barack Obama once said compulsory voting could be “transformative” and could counteract the role of money in politics “more than anything.”

Compulsory voting is often pitched as the silver bullet to the many ills of American democracy, with the assumption that high turnout is always good. But an overview of the literature on compulsory voting and some case examples show that even worse than low turnout might be alienated voters.

The history of compulsory voting

Compulsory voting isn’t a new concept. It’s been in place in Belgium since 1893, Australia since 1925, Brazil since 1934, and Turkey since 1986. It’s been adopted for reasons such as colonial heritage and as a method for curbing the purchase of votes. In total, 27 countries in the world mandate that their citizens vote, and the degree to which compulsion is enforced varies.”

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