The Case for Universal Voting

The Case for Universal Voting

Universal civic duty voting would represent a milestone in the two-century-long struggle to expand the franchise.

Voters cast their ballots at a polling place in Ridgeland, Mississippi in 2018 (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It is time for the United States to take a major leap forward and recognize voting as both a fundamental civil right and a civic duty required of every eligible U.S. citizen.

If citizens were required to vote, our democracy would be improved in critical and far-ranging ways. In Australia, which has had such a policy for ninety-six years, turnout is consistently above 90 percent of all registered voters, and registration is nearly universal. Imagine if that were the case in the United States. With dramatically increased turnout, the voting population would look much more like America. As things are now, the pool of actual voters is skewed by race, income, and age. Election processes would open up significantly. The nature of campaigns would change—for the better. Other institutions, including schools and employers, would be pushed to recognize their civic obligations as the nation moves toward full participation.

Universal civic duty voting would also represent a milestone in the two-century-long struggle to expand the franchise. It is a story of progressive advance and class- and race-based resistance and reaction. For the last decade, it has once again been an intense, public, racially charged, and largely partisan engagement.

On the one hand, there have been cynical attempts to suppress the vote. After the Tea Party wave of 2010, some Republican state legislatures enacted new obstacles to the exercise of suffrage, an effort that received a major boost from the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013. Strict voter ID laws, aggressive voter list purging, voting site manipulations, and egregious partisan gerrymandering have all been part of this effort.

These policies have rightly received widespread attention because of the threat they pose to democracy. And many suppression efforts have been successfully pushed back through energetic and tenacious opposition in public demonstrations, legislative battles, ballot initiatives, and large-scale litigation. But the defensive battles have also overshadowed the advances made by democracy advocates in many places, most prominently in blue states but in some purple and red ones, too.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia now have same-day registration, and eighteen now conduct automatic voter registration at state agencies, a practice that has spread rapidly in just a few years. Forty states offer online registration, and twenty-three allow pre-registration of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Perhaps most encouragingly, states around the country, most recently in Florida and Kentucky, have restored the voting rights of people with felony convictions.

States have increased not just registration options but the number of ways that voters can cast ballots. In 2020, forty states and the District of Columbia will have early voting periods ranging from five to forty-five days. Six states send ballots to all or almost all of their eligible voters, and expansion of mail-in voting will be essential to conducting this year’s elections safely. It is almost certain that mail voting programs will continue to grow after the coronavirus crisis has passed.

These reforms make a difference. Turnout rose dramatically from 36.7 percent in the 2014 elections to 50 percent in 2018, the highest for a midterm in over a century. Many factors were responsible, including an electorate mobilized by candidates, labor, and community organizations in strong opposition to Donald Trump. But voters also had more options for registering and voting, and smart campaigns made good use of them. Nearly 40 percent of voters used an alternative to in-person voting on Election Day.

All this should be celebrated, but a 50 percent participation rate remains abysmal for all who believe in full participation and seek an electorate that truly reflects the population of our country. It is also far below nearly all other OECD member countries. How can we achieve universal participation?

The answer lies in practices that other democratic countries have successfully embraced and now take for granted. It is time for the United States to join them.

In 1924, Australia adopted a requirement that every citizen vote through what became known as “compulsory attendance at the polls.” For ninety-six years, participation in elections in Australia has been mandatory. (It is important to note that the country’s indigenous population fought long for its own voting rights; it took until 1984 for Australia to completely eliminate race-based distinctions in its electoral law.) The voting requirement is extremely popular. It achieves the high turnouts it was designed to promote and faces no serious repeal effort.

Australia is not alone in its approach. More than two dozen countries, from Argentina and Greece to Belgium and Uruguay, have some form of civic duty voting. Universal voting does not guarantee an open and successful democracy; authoritarian regimes have used mandatory voting as a lever of power. But in an open democracy, universal voting is a major step forward.

A Plan for Universal Voting

In 2015, E. J. Dionne Jr. and his Brookings colleague William Galston wrote a brief arguing for universal voting in the United States. Other political scientists, including former President of the American Political Science Association Arend Lijphart, have also made the case. One especially prominent sympathizer is former President Barack Obama. In 2015, he argued that the United States should consider the idea of mandatory voting.

The Universal Voting Working Group was formed in the fall of 2018 as a joint project of the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Brookings Institution. Our goal has been to examine the desirability and possibility of initiating a serious conversation on the concept of universal voting. The two of us have served as co-chairs for a diverse group of thirty scholars, voting rights advocates, and elections experts who have worked for eighteen months on the topic.

The group studied the legal issues that would be involved in achieving universal voting. We examined how civic duty voting has worked in other countries, discussed the issue with scholars and political leaders from several of them, and also engaged opponents of the idea. We also vetted the proposal in discussions with officials who would have the responsibility to implement the policy and with leaders of the communities that would be most affected by it. These have included state legislators, secretaries of state, election officials, civic leaders, and voting rights advocates in the African-American, Latinx, and Asian and Pacific-Islander communities.

Our fundamental recommendation is a simple one: the United States should, as a matter of policy, procedure, and culture, adopt the principle that voting is a both a fundamental right and a universal civic duty. Every eligible American citizen should be required to participate in making the decisions that affect all our lives. The principle should be embodied in federal legislation, but it also can be adopted at the state and municipal level with appropriate enabling legislation. Pursuant to that broader goal, we also recommend:

A small penalty for not voting: a fine of $20 or less with a community service alternative. Fines should not accumulate interest or penalties or become the basis of any criminal procedure. The program could be accompanied by individual or community incentives for people to participate.

A set of acceptable reasons for non-voting, including a religious or principled conscientious objection. A vote of “none of the above,” or the casting of a blank ballot, would be acceptable as well.

Collateral policies and reforms expanding voter registration and voting options, like the ones many states are adopting already. These would be essential for the successful implementation of civic duty voting.

Dramatically increased funding for elections. The federal government and states need to provide the funding for smoothly handling the major increases in turnout that would result from universal voting.

The adoption of universal civic duty voting would bring our nation much closer to the goal of full participation. The voting population would become far more reflective of the population of the country as a whole. Participation rates now vary directly with income, education, and often with race. A nation founded on the idea that government is legitimate only if it enjoyed “the consent of the governed” must reject the idea that “the consent of some of the governed” is a legitimate standard.

There is a powerful analogy in the requirement of jury service. Cornell William Brooks, former president of the NAACP, has observed that the civil rights movement “fought for the right of African-Americans to be compelled to serve on juries.” Few struggles more clearly illustrate how rights and duties are intertwined. Similarly, we want the decisions of government to be made by a fully representative electorate, not by a tilted or bleached voter pool.

Universal voting would also help spur a range of collateral policies that would markedly improve the democratic process. A state that made voting a requirement would be compelled to take steps to make the registration and voting processes as accessible and navigable as possible. It would also provide an incentive to increase the commitment to civic education; if every graduating high school senior is required to vote, educational systems would be encouraged to prepare students to assume that responsibility.

Universal participation could also change the nature of campaigning for the better. Close elections are typically desperate contests to turn out partisans—and, in too many cases, to keep the opposition’s base home. The current system thus creates incentives for negative campaigning, attack ads, and other ways to discourage citizens from exercising their rights. Universal voting will not magically transform the campaign process, but it would weaken these incentives. It would also free political movements from having to raise and spend enormous sums on get-out-the-vote efforts. The freed-up resources could go instead to persuasion of a much larger portion of the citizenry.

Meeting Objections, Moving Forward

Objections to mandatory voting comes from many quarters. Libertarians fundamentally object to the idea of compulsion and assert a “right not to vote.” Others argue against encouraging “ill-informed” voters to go to the polls. But citizens can be required to participate while being free to cast a blank or spoiled ballot. And the attack on allegedly uninformed voters is an attack on the idea of democracy itself. Our nation has rejected “literacy tests” and other (usually contrived) measures of education or civic engagement. Supporters of universal voting stand with political scientists such as V. O. Key and Samuel Popkin in seeing voters of all stripes as “responsible” and “reasoning” in their approach to elections.

Two potentially more troubling arguments come from the civil rights community and from advocates for the rights of immigrants. The first concerns the disparate impact of fines. Fines, even small ones, are much easier for some people to pay than others. In the criminal justice system, unpaid fines can accumulate interest and penalties and become a life-hobbling experience.

Any legislation should make clear that fines levied for non-voting should be exempt from any interest or penalties, while also providing community service options. Fines should not serve as a basis for criminal warrants. In addition, a well-run system would include conscientious objector rights and accept a variety of other legitimate reasons for not voting. Again, the experience in Australia is telling: less than 20 percent of non-voters actually pay the small fine imposed for not voting.

Another concern is that having a requirement to vote could lead people who are not citizens to vote inadvertently and end up being prosecuted for that act. Even more disturbing is the possibility that a voting requirement could be twisted by anti-immigrant officials as one more way of punishing immigrant communities. Any legislation should be extremely clear that inadvertent voting is not a violation and will not be prosecuted, and advocates will need—as in every situation—to be prepared to fight against abuses of power.

Civic duty voting would not heal all that ails American democracy. But the time is right for the idea to enter the mainstream voting rights debate. In response to the economic and health disparities laid bare by the COVID-19 epidemic and the broadly based protests against racial injustice set off by killing of George Floyd, public policy debates are breaking out of old bounds. Our thinking about how to build a truly inclusive democracy should as well. Universal civic duty voting would be a decisive step in our long struggle to ensure that all Americans are included in our Constitution’s most resonant phrase: “We the People.”

Miles Rapoport is the Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School. From 1984 to 1998, he served in the state legislature and as Secretary of the State in Connecticut. He also served as President of Demos and of Common Cause.

E. J. Dionne Jr. is the author of Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University, and visiting professor in Religion and Political Culture at Harvard University.

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