Mandatory Voting Will Not Save Democracy

Lillian Keith

As the 2020 presidential election grew near, the call to vote rapidly spread across the country. In the weeks preceding the election, millions of voters had already sent in their ballots and millions more were cast by the end of Election Day. Accompanying this fervor was an old and controversial idea that once again came to light: mandatory voting. This is a law that would require all eligible voters to cast a ballot. Many idealists wonder if mandatory voting could save the American democracy, of which the strength has been called into question over the past few years. Yet, while mandatory voting sounds great on paper, its impact is not as significant as it may seem. 

Of course, mandatory voting brings more people out to the polls. There is no question about this; after all, increasing voter turnout is the whole objective of mandatory voting. But, contrary to what its supporters believe, mandatory voting does not automatically ensure a stronger democracy. Election results do not better represent the people’s voice simply because there are more votes. Australia, the most common ‘successful’ example of mandatory voting, comes in 9th on The Economist’s Democracy Index. This means that there are eight other countries with stronger democracies that do not use mandatory voting. In fact, out of the top 50 strongest democracies on the index, only six countries that use mandatory voting are listed. 

An explanation for the lack of efficacy of the mandate is a problem that plagues every democracy: uneducated voters. As nice as it would be to have all citizens of a country knowledgeable about politics, the unfortunate reality is that many are not. In every presidential election in the United States, voter turnout has rarely been much more than half of all eligible voters. While some of these non-voters may be those who want to vote but are unable, there are still millions of people who do not vote because they just do not care. This is the equivalent of a teacher giving out an assignment that is not for a grade; there are always some students who randomly pick answers without even reading the question. Mandatory voting would force this group to cast a ballot on something they pay no attention to and know nothing about, thus introducing millions of uninformed voters into an election. These additional votes would dilute the voting power of concerned voters and skew the results of an election away from what the educated populace wants.

Even if there was a way to educate every voter in a country, enforcing mandatory voting would raise a whole new problem. The most common way to enforce this law is by imposing fines as low as $20 on non-voters if they fail to provide an adequate reason for not voting. However, this is extremely inefficient. First, every non-voter would need to explain their absence. In a country as big as the United States, just one percent of eligible voters missing the election is equivalent to over 3.2 million people. After this, everyone without a legitimate excuse would have to be fined. Making sure each non-voter pays their $20 sanction is a lot more trouble than it is worth.  

Some people argue that mandatory voting can become a law without imposing any sanctions, thus eliminating the hassle of enforcing it. And sure, this might work in select countries around the world. But in the US, where people are refusing to wear masks during a pandemic simply because “it is their right,” an unenforced mandatory voting law would simply be ignored by anyone who does not feel inclined to vote. 

Proponents of mandatory voting also claim that it reduces campaign costs directed towards convincing people to vote while also requiring candidates to reach out to more voters beyond their established base. Separately, both of these effects seem sensible and positive. However, when taken together, simple logic exposes the contradiction. In order to reach a wider audience, candidates would have to spend more money on media, advertising and events, which would also increase travel costs. With an increase in spending in all of these categories, it is hard to believe that mandatory voting causes a significant decrease in campaign costs just because candidates do not need to persuade people to vote.

In a perfect world where everyone was informed and willing to vote, mandatory voting could succeed. However, the world today is far from perfect, and mandatory voting would do more harm than good if implemented. Although efforts to improve US democracy are commendable, mandatory voting is not the right choice to do so.