Last time I explained how our voting system is broken and proffered a mandatory voting law as a resolution to this problem. Now I demonstrate this policy’s benefits and drawbacks.
You know your wacky neighbor or uncle always spouting some loony policy that no one seems to agree with, but somehow manages to be supported at election time, every time? These ideological extremists would be drowned out with a mandatory voting law.
First off, let’s establish that you might live in your own bubble and rarely hear opinions different from your own, thus making your views the “extreme” ones.
Setting aside that possibility, extreme opinions would become irrelevant (politically speaking) because they wouldn’t represent the average. In a fictional city of 100 people, if 10 extremists dominate the news and religiously vote, while the remaining 90 don’t do either, the views of the 10 will get passed at election time. But if all 100 voted, the extremists would easily lose at the ballot box, with the median view passing at the polls.
While this example is obviously ridiculous, it demonstrates my point: the extremes lose out with the influx of voters. This means that “safe” Congressional seats based on gerrymandered districts now have to acknowledge and cater to the average voter, not their ideologically extreme base.
It also means that special interests lose influence, since their money is used to motivate voters to get to the voting booths, not necessarily to educate them. We won’t see politicians elected by the 81% of the 20% who turn out (see Mayor Garcetti’s re-election), because everyone will turn out. Our politicians will therefore be more representative of our views.
One caveat: Typical arguments in favor of mandatory voting laws argue that there will be an increase in representation across socio-economic levels, as well as ethnic, age, education, and career groups. However, one group in Brazil studying elections from 1986 to 2006 found that socioeconomic gaps still endured despite mandatory voter turnout laws and the resulting increase in voter turnout.
That doesn’t mean the policy is not justified. Moderating the extremes itself is a massive benefit. We should have a realistic understanding of what is likely to occur, including reigning in our expectations of possible benefits.
But there are costs to consider as well, financial and otherwise.
For example, what if people simply mark “A,” “A,” “A” all the way down the ballot just to protest the new system?
(this is called donkey voting, by the way, for reasons beyond understanding)
Not only does this not progress us toward our goal, but it could potentially skew outcomes, handing a losing candidate the win based on a flawed system.
Moreover, this number is more than offset by the massive increase in voter turnout. In the United States, for example, if the 227 million eligible voters all turned out, that results in 90 million people submitting a ballot they wouldn’t otherwise have submitted. If the US had a 3% rate of donkey voting, that would be 7 million irrelevant (for our purposes) votes. This pales compared to the 90 million new votes in the revised system, most of which will be relevant.
Furthermore, US Census data implies that we wouldn’t actually reach that 7 million high of donkey votes. This is because the major reasons people don’t vote are due to inconvenience, illness, transportation issues, or forgetfulness, not out of spite.
But what about actual financial costs of an expanded system?
If we’re now expecting an additional 90 million voters, at minimum, we’re going to need a lot more voting booths and administrative staff, pushing costs up. While no concrete estimates of costs exist, experts believe they will be less than we imagine. Let me describe the system they envision to demonstrate.
First, there will have to be a centralized, interactive database system to manage all voters (names, addresses, voting history, etc.), and every relevant agency must have access to remove ineligible voters (like those with a felony, have died, or moved away) or add new ones.
This, by the way, would result in the near elimination of voting fraud opportunities.
How the heck did you jump to that conclusion, you ask?
Since fraudulent voting is usually done by using someone’s name that is unlikely to vote (e.g. a dead person), the interactive, centralized system allows the various government agencies to easily edit the voter rolls to accurately reflect circumstances.
Which means we can make voter registration easier, because onerous registration requirements are very expensive. Some states have significant requirements to prevent fraud, which has been linked to depressed voting rates. Given that voter fraud is now less likely (in the new system), we can eliminate these expensive requirements to improve the voting rate without hurting the taxpayers.
It’s also been found that turnout would markedly increase just by getting this law “on the books.” In Argentina, for example, mandatory voting laws were passed over a century ago in 1912, which made voting a normal part of their culture. But when the law was removed before their 2009 election and people were only encouraged to vote, turnout dropped by 28%, to 70.69%, still much higher than our highest voting rate in the past century. Even if we imposed a law with no intention of enforcing it, we would still see a huge increase in turnout just because it’s now law.
For the taxpayers, this is like archangel’s singing Friedrich Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, but with Idina Menzel’s voice (admit it, her voice is heavenly). Better outcomes, for free.
The system would also be relatively simple to administer, keeping costs down. Government forms could include an “I Voted In the Last Election” check box, allowing voters to proceed with the government service; if they didn’t vote, they have to justify why not. It would be modeled on an already established and successful system: the Selective Service.
For those that don’t know or remember what Selective Service is, it’s the federal requirement that all males of a certain age must register with the government in case there is ever a need to be conscripted to the military.
And it has a 93% compliance rate.
While detractors could be fined or jailed, prosecutions are incredibly rare. The reason it has such a high compliance rate is because it is tied to key government benefits like qualifying for a student loan or getting a driver’s license. If a man doesn’t register, he can’t receive the product or service, and likely faces additional consequences.
There are other methods to improve participation without significant cost, like moving elections to a weekend or making it a holiday, supporting increased absentee voting, put voting booths in places like malls to reduce its opportunity costs, or extending voting across multiple days.
While not comprehensive, this list demonstrates that the expanded system doesn’t have to become egregiously expensive. If we make it easier to participate, both administrative and enforcement costs drop.
Sounds great. But what about people choosing to still not vote?
Nonvoters would receive a notice in the mail presenting them with options to demonstrate justifiable reasons why they didn’t vote; if they can’t, they face a variety of consequences, ranging from fines, prohibitions from taking civil service exams, inability to enroll or renew attendance at schools, or preventing access to bank credit.
But we’d also want to allow generous exceptions. Because we’ve now made it rational to vote.
Where the heck does rationality come in?
Remember the typical potential voter’s train of thought? “Ugh, I don’t want to see that person elected! But I just can’t spare the time to vote today…”
Time is a cost, among many other things, and many people determine that voting is simply too “expensive” for them. Whether waiting in line is the issue – or transportation, or language barriers – there are intrinsic costs associated with voting. Therefore, people find it rational to not vote, despite the consequences I’ve mentioned previously.
Game-theory analyzes rationality in the “prisoner’s dilemma,” comparing individual versus group rationality. Simply speaking, a group whose members act in their own rational self-interest end up worse off than if they were to act on behalf of the group.
What does that mean?
In our case, because it costs too much to vote, people rationally choose not to, but end up worse off as a result (they lack representation, leading to tax policies that hurt them, for example). But the law changes the mindset, making it rational to vote, because it “costs” less to submit a ballot than navigate the system to provide an excuse and potentially still be punished.
Mandatory voter turnout laws are a game changer (pun intended. Get it? Because game theory predicts these outcomes?)
Seriously though, a mandatory voter turnout law changes the way people view the system. It changes the way citizens think about who or what is on the ballot. It makes the average voter’s perspectives more commonly represented and pursued by politicians. Money and special interests lose influence in the process. The system itself is easier to access by every citizen, and it probably won’t cost much.
Okay, so what’s the hold up?
There are several barriers, constitutional and political. But those are the subject of my next post.
Next article: Barriers to a Mandatory Voter Turnout Law
 Hayden, Grant. “The Solution: Help America Vote Act and Voting Now.” Ed. Morgan E. Felchner. Voting in America. Vol. 3. American voting systems in flux: debacles, dangers, and brave new designs. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. 111-119. Print.