Last time I talked about the system that would be designed and the various benefits we would enjoy because of a mandatory voter turnout law. Now I cover some of the obstacles to overcome.
Requiring me to vote tramples my First Amendment right to free speech. How dare you!
This is probably the most common response people will have when thinking about this type of law, and given that the Constitution is our country’s human rights protective blanket, it’s important we manage this properly. Free speech is a primary component of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a United Nations declaration that laid the groundwork for most international law after World War II.
So here is what researchers are saying we should do: require turnout, not votes.
Okay Matt, you’ve gone a little around the bend now… if we want people to vote, why not make them do that?
To be clear, I’m not crazy.
More to the point, it would be called a “mandatory voter turnout” law. This is extremely important for two key reasons: our country goes to great lengths to protect the privacy and anonymity of our votes. If that is still the case, then we should just require every eligible voter to submit a ballot; how would we know if it’s filled out or not?
Second, requiring only the submission of a ballot gets around the “coerciveness” of infringing on free speech.
Two additional notes about the Constitution and a mandatory turnout law.
First, a Constitutionally-protected right might serve more than just your own self-interest, and our society is better off if the government requires everyone to vote. Just like the right to a trial by a jury of your peers is “a protection of the individual from the power of the state,” the trial also serves to enhance the legitimacy of trials more generally; jury trials benefit you personally, and society at large.
Voting is the same. The individual benefits when he or she weighs in on the process because their choice might win at the polls; but we also all benefit when individual Americans exercise their right because it attests to our collective faith in the process.
Second, the Supreme Court has actually ruled against the claim that voting itself is a form of speech. In 1992 in Burdick v. Takushi, the Court upheld Hawaii’s ban on an option to write in your own candidate, arguing that voting is not direct expression, but rather is the picking of a representative. We have a Constitutional right to vote; we don’t have a Constitutional right to vote for the candidate we want.
These points have been extremely difficult for me to wrap my head around, mostly because they don’t seem to support what I grew up learning and believing my Constitution stood for.
Think of it this way though: Voting is the process used to chime in on various aspects of our society, and we want everyone to contribute. If the process itself effectively discriminates against some, then isn’t it breaching the Equal Protection Clause enshrined in the 14th Amendment? Voluntary voting has a variety of state-imposed barriers that discourage people from voting, eliminating the political equality we hold dear. Our current system basically says that one person does not equal one vote.
Fine, we might be able to reconcile Constitutional issues. But politically speaking, is a mandatory voter turnout law possible?
Likely? No time soon.
Democrats are likely to support much of what has been said, mostly because they expect an influx of new voters to register with them. Republicans, however, don’t expect much growth, so are likely to oppose the law.
But the research only weakly supports this party-focused theory. Remember the claim that politicians would be more representative of the average voter? It stems from this research in Europe which confirmed that there will be a greater range of ideological views elected.
Here’s a counter-intuitive discovery though: the newly elected, more representative politicians might not be able to overcome veto effects, so there is no substantial change in actual policies. The researchers found that while more liberal-leaning parties might benefit from an increase in their party’s candidates, it’s actually more conservative parties proposing these laws because their policies have become the status quo. With an increased range of ideological views in the elected body, it’s harder to institute any change.
Why should we expand a system where we vote against our least favorite instead of for our favorite candidate?
This is an extremely important question, and one many people might rally behind.
First, check out Kenneth Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem that actually predicts this, but I won’t go into detail here due to its complexity. Let’s talk options instead.
In my opinion, our goal should first be to get everyone into the system. Then we can refine it because we’re all participating.
If that isn’t appealing though, there are different mechanisms we can create to help us get candidates we want versus don’t hate.
One is creating a “No Candidate Acceptable” option for voters to reject all candidates on the ballot. If this option “wins,” a new election is held with new candidates that (theoretically) better represent the community’s interests.
Or we could require that the winner receive over 50% of the votes to take office, prompting a run off between the top several candidates until that occurs.
I don’t support these because it means there are more elections we have to follow and more money spent to run them. But that’s me…
What about the worsening of political outcomes due to the influx of uninformed voters? No way will they improve our system, so can we make sure they know something before they vote?
We are now talking about a new form of a literacy test people must pass to be qualified to vote—which is illegal according to the Voting Rights Act and upheld by the Supreme Court in Oregon vs. Mitchell in 1970. So we can’t really do that, despite (hopefully) your intentions…
As a practical matter, what would be the bar where someone demonstrates enough civic “knowledge” that they qualify to vote? My friend works in government dealing with housing financing, but openly admits knowing very little about other things on the ballot (e.g. reducing drug sentencing laws). Is she qualified enough to vote?
Also, uninformed voters participate in our elections now, so this argument doesn’t necessarily support our current system of voluntary voting.
Regardless, our society is not better if “apathetic and generally uninformed” voters don’t participate. We need everyone – including those without quantitative or qualitative knowledge of issues or government – to participate, because it is through the diversity of views and opinions that we form good policy. Moreover, as the new law is more integrated into our culture, we will learn how to “educate” these different groups of people, and our government will eventually better reflect the views and values of these newly represented groups.
Why mandatory turnout? Why not fix gerrymandering, change to a proportional representation system, or something else?
Because we still have abysmally low voter participation, and research shows that when people vote, it often translates to tangible and positive participation in their community in other ways too. But that’s the subject of my next, and last, post.
Next article: Mandatory Voter Turnout — The Right Solution?
 Marcelo, Karlo Barrios, and Mark Hugo Lopez. “Why We Vote: Civic Duty and Voter Apathy.” Ed. Morgan E. Felchner. Voting in America. Vol. 1. How America Votes: Law, Process, and Voter Participation. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 173-188. Print.