Mandatory Voting: Helpful or Hurtful?

December 3, 2011

Political Theory


Nonvoters often have the power to sway election results, to the dismay of some groups and organizations.

Just a few weeks ago, Ann Arbor held a local election. I’m telling you this because statistically speaking it would seem that many students in this class didn’t know. At the Union’s polling place, a student-dominated area, seven ballots were cast. Other student precincts counted somewhere between three and 65 ballots. While student turnout was pretty dismal, three heavily student precincts reported less than 1% voter turnout, turnout in general was not great; the highest turnout reported by a precinct was 26.6%.

The lack of voter turnout in Ann Arbor is reflexive of the low voter turnout throughout our country: 64% of voting age citizens voted in the 2008 presidential elections and only 41.5%voted in the 2010 midterms. Some people believe that this low voter turnout is a major problem in US politics and turn to examples like Australia’s mandatory voting policy as a solution, while others believe that mandatory voting would only create a weaker government. Many of the political theorists we’ve studied this semester can provide a useful way to think about this issue.

Proponents of a compulsory voting law, like Lisa Hill, refer to the current voting inequality. Certain demographics (the poor, young, or unemployed, for example) are typically underrepresented at the polls, which conceivably means they are also underrepresented in the government. Hill, a citizen of Australia, believes that it is no coincidence that countries with mandatory voting have less wealth inequality, lower levels of political corruption and more overall satisfaction with democracy. She also notes that even small shifts in number of voters can drastically alter elections (Bush-Gore election for example) and non-voters generally share a similar ideology, meaning they would represent a sizable force for one side over the other.

In class, we discussed voting as an important expression of consent to be ruled. Locke, then, would be for mandatory voting, as he believed in the necessity of expressed consent to the formation of a functioning commonwealth, not to mention his explicit argument for the right to participate in government. Rousseau, as well, would be in favor of mandatory voting; In order to create a legitimate government free of corruption, it is crucial that the citizens, as “the people”, actively participate in government. Analyzing the issue through Rawls’ two principles, we see that voting does not satisfy them both. While voting is available to all citizens through the framework of the government, the constitution, and satisfies the first principle, institutions are not properly arranged to accommodate all citizens’ ability to vote, which leads to the discrepancies. Rawls therefore, would be in support of voting reform to increase representation of all demographics.

However, others, like Jason Brennan, believe that higher voter turnout is not always a good thing. He argues that despite their good intentions, voters are not always the most informed to make these decisions, and those that aren’t voting, aren’t voting because they don’t know enough about the issue to make a decision or even care about it. Forcing these people to vote, he continues, would hurt the political system, creating a more uninformed, irrational electorate that wouldn’t choose the best candidates.

Hobbes, although not a democrat, recognized the same problems Brennan lists, that humans are irrational and too busy or too lazy to keep up with politics. He also believes that power should be absolutely concentrated in the sovereign and not swayed by public mania. Classical conservatives would also most likely agree with Brennan. Hannah More’s Village Politcs illustrates an example of the common man trying to become involved in politics, despite his limited knowledge. This is exactly the type of voter Brennan fears.

So which side makes the better argument? Are the voting patterns in this country a problem? Or do they help stabilize US politics?

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3 Comments on “Mandatory Voting: Helpful or Hurtful?”

  1. andgoldberg Says:

    I completely agree with Jason Brennan. There are so many uneducated people in this world who should not be required to vote. If we force these people to vote, each uneducated vote essentially cancels out an educated vote. If minorities want a bigger voice in our government, they should approach the issue by both educating their respective groups and promoting them to participate in the election. A democracy relies on individuals making conscious logical decisions on how a government should be run. A democracy is not a type of government in which people randomly vote in elections with no real logical explanation behind their decisions.

  2. keroboim Says:

    Voting patterns in this country present a problem, but mandatory voting is not the solution to this problem. In a democracy, all citizens have an equal say in decisions that affect their lives. In my opinion, all citizens should not be forced to participate in these decisions even though they have the right to. If mandatory voting were enacted, I feel the outcome would not be any better than allowing citizens to vote at will. There are so many uneducated and uninformed citizens that many would go as far to call ignorant as well. If this percentage of the population were forced to vote, the democracy would not work better because there is a great chance these voters will not spend the time to educate themselves on the situation at hand and the effects it may have on them and the US population as a whole. In effect, the low voter participation helps stabilize the political system because the current voters are prepared to make the best decision and, hopefully, the subset of citizens who vote represent the views and opinions of the US population on average. Essentially, I partially agree with Hobbes view. Humans are irrational and too busy to keep up with politics, but power should not be absolutely concentrated, which may happen if a solution to this problem does not surface.

    The solution to this problem is to find a way to educate more citizens on political issues. This alone may make citizens more informed, but it will not prompt them to go out and vote. We need to find an effective way to do this in a bipartisan way. If this happens, voter participation will increase and it is the best way, in my opinion, to further stabilize US politics.

  3. Austin Telling Says:

    If voting becomes mandatory, it no longer is a right for citizens, but rather an attack upon their rights.

    As the two posters above me have mentioned, it would cause an influx of voters who are probably not knowledgable of the candidates or issues since they wouldn’t normally be voting. They of course should still have a right to vote if they wish, but using force to coerce them to make a choice would only be a detriment to the society.

    This problem also extends to those who are knowledgable on the candidates and issues, but refuse to vote on either moral principles or simply because they don’t like any of the candidates. Refusal to vote is a form of political participation, and should not be taken away.

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