It’s Election Day, and the smell of roasting hot dogs wafts through the air. More than 90% of the country’s eligible voters will cast a ballot today, and many will celebrate with barbecues outside of polling places. Red, white, and blue flags flap in the wind as this former colony carries out the most basic ritual of a democracy: a free and fair election.
No, I’m not talking about the United States. This electoral idyll is Australia.
Just 67% of eligible American adults voted in the most recent presidential election, according to data compiled by the Census Bureau. If that statistic seems miserable compared to Australia’s near-perfect turnout, it gets worse: That was America’s highest participation level in at least 40 years.
Why do Australian voters routinely register as some of the world’s most active, while barely more than half of eligible Americans can be bothered to vote every four years? The answer is simple: Australian adults are required to vote.
Only a handful of countries have “compulsory voting,” but those that do routinely boast some of the best turnout levels in the world. Aussies who don’t vote can be fined up to 80 Australian dollars, roughly $50 in America. It’s not going to break the bank for most people, but it has been enough to push voter turnout and civic participation through the roof.
Voter participation isn’t everything, but when you get involved in your democracy, you’re likely to learn more about how it works, care more about how it performs, and get your friends and family involved too. Should Americans be required to vote?
Before we call our legislators and demand compulsory voting, let’s dig a little deeper. Here are some of the most common arguments against making everyone vote:
“Some people don’t care about politics. They just don’t know enough to make an informed choice.”
Everyone has friends or family members that don’t care much about politics. While it’s true that they may not be able to name the Speaker of the House, they’re still a part of our democracy and civic world. What’s more, they’re just as affected by our laws and leaders as we are.
It’s also possible that those same people who don’t know much about politics might learn more if they knew they had to vote. Scholars have asked this question time and again, and some studies suggest that being forced to vote might actually encourage people to learn more about their leaders. If people are forced to vote, they may seek out more information and share it with the people around them.
University of Pittsburgh political scientist Victoria Shineman calls this concept a “ripping effect.” In a study of three Austrian provinces that require voting, Shineman found that people subject to the laws consumed more news, paid more attention to politics, and knew more about key issues.
“It’s my civic right to choose not to vote.”
That is true! If you think the candidates in a race don’t care about you or would not do a good job in office, you are free to choose not to vote. But just because you have to cast a ballot doesn’t mean that you have to pick one of the candidates running for office. Australians can turn in blank ballots or write in a candidate.
“Candidates will just make shallow appeals to people who normally would not vote, leaving us worse off.”
A quarter of non-voters surveyed after the 2016 election said they opted not to vote because they didn’t like the candidates or campaign issues. Another 15% said they weren’t interested or thought their vote wouldn’t matter.
Politicians would suddenly need to appeal to these voters if Americans were forced to vote. As a result, candidates and elected officials would have to focus on issues that impact all Americans, not just the ones who are most likely to vote. That means young people, who typically vote in far lower numbers than old people, would become just as much of a priority. You might find that candidates would offer better student aid plans or support for youth wellbeing programs. Issues like mental health that younger generations care more about would suddenly climb up the ladder and get far more attention in the state and federal government.
“My vote doesn’t matter”
Growing up in New York, I heard the same thing every November: “Your vote doesn’t matter.”
I lived in a safe, blue state, people said, meaning no matter how I voted, a Democrat would win a majority of the state’s votes. There were so many more Democrats than Republicans where I lived that the results were basically predetermined: New York hasn’t voted “red” in a presidential election since 1984, one year after the internet was invented and 14 years before I was born.
Still, I vote in every election I can. There’s something about lining up on a cool autumn morning with my fellow citizens to tick a box that makes me feel like I play an active part in my democracy.
Voting, even in a noncompetitive election, can strengthen civic spirit. It might create a new generation of poll workers, activists, and candidates from groups that would not otherwise participate.
Mandating voting wouldn’t fix everything: Gerrymandering, the process by which electoral districts are designed to be so heavily stacked with voters of one party that they rarely have competitive elections, has eliminated some tough races across the country. We still have laws that make it harder for some people to vote. But there is no more fundamental way to participate in our democracy than to cast a vote. Whether or not the laws make us, we should all take that step.