Should Voting Be Mandatory?

Email a Friend
From and

Few things in America are mandatory. It was once mandatory for young men to sign up for the draft, but there's no longer a draft in effect. Young Americans are required to get at least some level of schooling and in just a few years, health insurance will become mandatory, too. But there's something that's noticeably absent from the list of requirements for Americans: voting. 

It's not a secret that voter turnout in America is low, hovering around 50 percent. But Norman Ornstein is trying to change that. He's a columnist for Roll Call and wrote the article “The U.S. should require all citizens to vote” for the Atlantic’s “America the Fixable” series. 

What Orstein proposes is that attendance at the polls on voting day be mandatory, a policy that Australia uses. Citizens would not have to cast a vote, but they would be required (on penalty of a fine that would be easily excused) to head down to their local middle school, post office, or community center on election day. 

"This is not something where men and women in uniform come to your house and haul you off to the 'pokey' if you don't vote, Orstein says. "It's quite a bit less onerous for people, but it works." 

One of the most significant barriers to instituting some sort of penalty or incentive for voting is the argument that voting is a civic right, not a civic duty, and therefore should not be made compulsory. 

In order to get around this, Ornstein brings the idea of a positive incentive to the table. Instead of charging non-voters with a fine or community service, he would like to see people's voting stubs turned into lottery tickets. "My guess is if we do that, overnight we increase our turnout by 25-30 percent," Ornstein says.

One of the most appealing benefits of compulsory or incentivized voting is not simply high turnout numbers, but a critical game changer in the way that politics are conducted. Ornstein says that if politicians know that their bases will be mobilized and ready, they will not feel pressured to push divisive issues, such as gay, gun, and abortion rights. Instead of "firing up the base" with demagoguing, they'll be compelled to dial down their rhetoric and address broader concerns in order to attract moderate voters. 

"In Australia, what you find is, as politicians from all sides and all stripes will tell you, if you know that your base is going to be there and their base is going to be there, your incentive is to focus on the voters in the middle who might be persuadable," Ornstein says. "There, you don't use vitriolic rhetoric, because if you scare them, you might turn them off. There, you don't turn to wedge issues, which aren't going to help you very much. You focus on the big things — the economy, jobs, education, climate." 

"It alters the context of the campaign, and it alters the context of politicians when they serve in office," Orstein says. "That's what I'm aiming for, not just getting people to turn out because we like high turnouts."