What if they gave an election and everybody came?
Would American government be more representative if our consistently anemic voter turnouts were more like those in, say, Australia, at 91 percent? Would political candidates appeal more broadly to voters, instead of just firing up their base, if they knew 87 percent of citizens would participate, as in Belgium? Would more Americans be able to name their US senators if, as in Ecuador, elections attracted 82 percent of registered voters?
What those countries, and 24 others, have that we don’t are laws mandating their citizens to vote. Compulsory voting is a novel, not to say radical, idea in the United States, where the right to vote includes the right not to vote. Indeed, many citizens exercise that choice: Turnout hovers around 57 percent of eligible voters for presidential elections and only 40 percent for midterms. This civic indifference belies the country’s founding principles: With less than half the eligible voters even showing up, it’s hard to see how those elected are acting with “the consent of the governed.”
But what if the right to vote were more a civic duty, like serving on a jury or paying taxes? In a new report issued Monday, a group of scholars and advocates convened by the Brookings Institution and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government calls for universal voting as a way to refresh American democracy. “It insists that every citizen has a role to play in our nation’s public life and in constructing our future,” they write.
The authors freely admit the idea is unpopular. Their own research found 64 percent opposed to compulsory voting even if it were made more convenient, as with mail-in ballots. But it’s also something Americans could get used to. Some people blast new requirements to wear a mask when entering a store, but few complain about the familiar rule of “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”
Miles Rapoport, former secretary of state for Connecticut, is cochair of the working group. “In my mind, it’s a little like single-payer health care,” said Rapoport, now with the Ash Center for Democratic Governance at Harvard. “There was no serious conversation about it until there was. This idea needs to enter the bloodstream of conversation.”
Proponents say a national requirement would sweep away unjust voter suppression tactics — the long lines, the legal assaults — by explicitly making universal voter access the law. Civic education would flourish as voting became a shared national obligation.
The authors offer several options for how the plan could be rolled out, though obviously not in time for this November. It might begin in the states or even individual communities (interestingly, Massachusetts is the only state whose constitution explicitly gives the Legislature the “authority to provide for compulsory voting”). But in any case, no one would be coerced into choosing a specific candidate; everyone would have the option of “none of the above” or casting a blank ballot. That should answer the claim that mandatory voting violates the First Amendment because it amounts to government-compelled speech. As a statement, “none of the above” is viewpoint-neutral, a key concept in free speech cases. Excuses for not participating would include various hardships, plus a broader “conscientious objector” status. Any fees for failing to participate would be small and not accrue interest.
Another common objection is that universal voting would necessarily pull in less informed voters. The “ignorant voter” argument is vividly expressed in a 2014 article by Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan, who asked, “Should we force the drunk to drive?” But insisting that citizens possess a certain level of knowledge to vote is fundamentally anti-democratic. We long ago gave up the idea of literacy tests as a requirement for the franchise.
Here in Massachusetts, Secretary of State Bill Galvin says he would rather focus on removing obstacles to voting. “The bottom line is, you’re compelling people to do something they wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to do,” he said. “I think that’s a hard sell.‘'
My own concern is that requiring Americans to participate in elections would further inflame the anti-government frothing that already corrodes civic life. And it certainly doesn’t guarantee enlightened leadership: Mandatory voting in Brazil has given the world Jair Bolsonaro, after all.
But these are days of extraordinary crisis in our democracy, amid a national awakening to injustice that makes room for bold solutions that might once have been unthinkable. This may be just the time to give universal voting serious thought.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.