Of the many problems that plague government, one of the toughest to grasp is the abysmal percentage of eligible citizens who choose to fulfill their civic duty and vote. People forego voting for a myriad of reasons including dissatisfaction with the candidate(s), ignorance of the convoluted laws surrounding voting and laziness. Instituting a system of compulsory voting would increase the number of votes, raise civic engagement and help make our government more representative of the people it serves.
Although this idea sounds strange and draconian, there is proven evidence that it works. Many parts of civic life are compulsory, including the much more time-consuming jury duty. Over 20 countries currently have some sort of compulsory voting in effect. In Australia, a country culturally similar to the United States, citizens are not forced to vote. They do, however, face a minor fine if they fail to provide a reasonable excuse. If citizens so wish, they may even turn in a protest ballot or leave it blank entirely. This has led to voter turnout remaining above 90 percent, with widespread support for the policy.
Some states are headed on the right path by making it easier to vote with early voting periods or registering voters by default when handling other government business. However, others, including Alabama, are doing everything they can to make it more difficult to make one’s voice heard at the ballot box, instituting strict voter ID laws that serve only to disenfranchise those without the means or need to get a driver’s license. The idea is not to force citizens to choose from a number of options they disagree with, but to simply make voting easier than not voting for a majority of the population.
Compulsory voting will also increase civic engagement beyond the national level. Turnout drops precipitously in years without presidential candidates spamming the airwaves. In a state like Alabama where only 32.4 percent of the eligible population voted in the 2014 midterms, an increase in voter turnout could radically change the face of state and local politics from the school board to the state house.
College students are famously disengaged from the political process, one that they think ignores them and their political values. Compulsory voting would increase the 17 percent of college students who voted in the 2014 elections.
A more complete picture of America gives elected officials a broader mandate to govern, making them more efficient leaders. Only 9 percent of voters voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the primaries. Over half of those polled think unfavorably of Mrs. Clinton, and that number is even higher for Mr. Trump. These numbers make it difficult for either candidate to claim a mandate to govern, thus limiting their ability to affect change in office. Elected officials that are more in tune with the full range of the electorate are more responsive to the needs of their constituency, and more accountable to those same voters.
The United States government is a representative democracy. Its efficacy relies on being truly representative of the people, not just the smaller amount of those who vote. This subset tends to skew older, wealthier, more educated and whiter than the general population. Compulsory voting would help equalize the electoral power of each individual citizen, force smarter campaigns that speak to a wider swath of the population than ever before, and bring the ideal of a truly representative democracy closer to reality.
Daniel Pelavin is a senior majoring in political science and history. His column runs biweekly.