Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; Brookline resident
American democracy is a mess. About a third of Americans think Joe Biden won the 2020 election because of voter fraud. A majority of Americans think our democracy is under attack. And Democratic and Republican politicians are both trying to rig the election rules or the drawing of district lines to favor their candidates.
But maybe we get the democracy we deserve. If voting is any indication of our democratic commitment, we Americans don’t really care much for our democracy. Year after year, our voter turnout rates lag behind most of the democracies around the world, in many cases well behind.
Massachusetts has the opportunity to take the lead in changing that equation. State Representative Dylan Fernandes has introduced legislation (H. 788) that would add $15 to the tax bill of every eligible voter who fails to cast a ballot in a November election. In their new book “100% Democracy,” my colleagues E.J. Dionne and Miles Rapoport describe many benefits that “universal civic duty voting” — or mandatory voting — would bring.
More than 20 other countries — including Australia, Belgium, and Brazil — already have forms of universal civic duty voting, in some cases with fines or other sanctions for those who fail to vote.
As citizens, we all need to ask ourselves what we think is best for our society, and what we want our government to do — and then answer those questions by casting a ballot. Voting is a right, but it is also a responsibility that we have to our democracy and to each other.
Universal voting would improve campaigns and politics. Candidates and parties would have to focus on making the best case for their politics and policies rather than investing countless dollars in the get-out-the-vote game. Schools, companies, and civic organizations would all work to help everyone fulfill their responsibilities. And voters — all of us — would pick our officials.
In this moment when Americans are more politically divided than almost any other time in our history, universal civic duty voting strengthens the deepest political commitment we have to one another, whatever our differences: that we are equal citizens trying to make the best judgments we can about how to face the serious challenges that confront us all.
Executive Director, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts; Marblehead resident
Voting is a right guaranteed to United States citizens, a right to be protected and enhanced. But voting is not and should never be an obligation.
The US Constitution has been amended four times to expand voting rights. The 15th Amendment in 1870 ruled the right to vote could not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The 19th Amendment in 1920 extended the right to women. The 24th Amendment in 1964 prohibited poll taxes. And the 26th Amendment in 1971 lowered the voting age to 18. But Congress and ratifying states have never made the right to vote mandatory. The right to vote implicitly includes the right not to vote. Imposing a penalty if a citizen opts not to cast a ballot infringes on that right.
The proposed legislation requiring eligible voters to cast ballots in November elections might increase turnout. Yet its provision that “Nothing shall impede a voter’s right to complete and return a ballot that does not include any actual votes for candidates” means citizens must show up to avoid the fine but do not effectively have to participate in the electoral process. And rather than being inspired by the act of voting, some might come to resent it as an obligation.
We urge the Legislature not to spend precious time on this bill, but instead to quickly adopt the strong voting reform bill before it — the VOTES Act, (S.2554).
The VOTES Act would bring same-day voter registration to Massachusetts, a reform already used in 20 states. It would allow citizens to register and vote during the early voting period and on election day. Same-day registration is an equity issue; it increases voter turnout in Black and Latinx communities. This reform is overdue in Massachusetts.
Additionally, the VOTES Act would make permanent the wildly popular expansion of voting by mail and expanded in-person early voting temporarily put in place for the 2020 election due to the pandemic.
A healthy democracy depends on large numbers of citizens casting their ballots. But rather than making voting compulsory we should do whatever we can to make it accessible to all. The VOTES Act would accomplish that. Lawmakers should move quickly to pass it.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is not a scientific survey. Please only vote once.