If jury duty is mandatory, why isn't voting?
Australia took on this question in 1924, passing compulsory voting in federal elections. The move was prompted by what Australian legislators considered an alarmingly low voter turnout of 59% in 1922.
In comparison, voter turnout in the United States falls between 48% (in 1996) and 53% (in 2012).
Why is it important?
Though it is highly unlikely the U.S. would pass mandatory voting laws, Australia's example demonstrates the importance of how we practice our democracy—who votes, who doesn't, and how it affects the country. President Obama has spoken about the idea, saying, "Other countries have mandatory voting. It would be transformative if everybody voted—that would counteract money more than anything."
However, the obvious question is: how do you enforce it? For citizens who do not vote, Australia mandates they provide "a valid and sufficient reason" or pay a $20 fine. But with any enforcement mechanism, a government would be expecting people to take precious time off work and punishing them (in ways that affect some more than others) if they do not.
Should voting be mandatory in federal elections?
Mandatory voting would lead to uninformed decisions, punish those for whom voting is most difficult, and contradict the principles of the Constitution.
Voting is categorically—and more importantly, constitutionally—different from jury duty. The Sixth and Seventh Amendments guarantee "the right of trial by jury" in criminal and civil cases. For that right to be possible, jury duty is necessary. It is a collective obligation.
However, though four different constitutional amendments mention the right to vote, there is no civic duty attached. There is no obligation to vote. In fact, for citizens to truly have the right to vote, they also need the right not to.
Further, the idea that voting would lead to increased accountability and political unity is based on misinformation. A 1999 study shows "voters differ minimally from all citizens; outcomes would not change if everyone voted."
Not only would mandatory voting impose undue punishments and misconstrue the Constitution, it would not even produce the societal and political benefits its proponents have come to expect.
Mandatory voting would improve civic duty, democratic accountability, and political unity. Simply put, it would make our democracy more democratic.
First, civic duty. The most important aspect of mandatory voting is establishing norms and expectations of citizens—far more than punishing people if they do not vote. In Australia, the extremely lenient $20 fine led to a stunning 91% turnout immediately after it was passed. It now remains at around 95%.
Second, accountability. Mandatory voting would hold our representatives accountable to the interests of everyone—even people for whom it's harder to get to the polls. As President Obama put it, "The people who tend not to vote are young, they're lower income, they're skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups." With voting required, we could add national holidays and increase the ease with which people vote.
Third, unity. American political parties are more divided than ever—but the American public is not. Most Americans are not uniformly liberal nor conservative. Mandatory voting would encourage candidates to address the actual interests of all Americans.
- Voter turnout in the United States
- "The U.S. lags most of its peers, landing 31st among the 35 countries in the OECD, most of whose members are highly developed, democratic states."
- Compulsory voting in Australia
- "The turnout at Australian elections has never fallen below 90% since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924."
- More against mandatory voting
- "If we force everyone to vote, the electorate will become even more irrational and misinformed."
- More in favor of mandatory voting
- "Imagine our politics with laws and civic norms that yield near-universal voting. Candidates would know that they must do more than mobilize their bases with red-meat rhetoric on hot-button issues."