Voting in federal elections should be compulsory for all eligible Americans above the age of 18. It should be illegal to not vote. Citizens should be made to vote. Not enough citizens are exercising their constitutional rights and voting.
Compulsory voting is not a popular idea. In 2004, an ABC News poll showed that 72 percent of Americans opposed requiring citizens to vote. It was also reported that Americans were similarly averse 40 years ago, when 69 percent of Americans voted nay to mandatory voting. Apparently, it would be too corrosive to our freedoms.
Although voter turnout increased by 5 million in 2008 compared to 2004, the actual percentage of eligible voters who voted remained the same: 64 percent. The 2008 elections saw increases in turnout among black, Hispanic and Asian voters, as well as voters aged 18-24, but turnout decreased or was stagnant among other demographic groups. This may be considered an improvement from the 2000 elections, when overall voter turnout was 55 percent.
No matter how you slice it or spin it, 64 percent is not enough.
There are 21 nations worldwide that make voting in national elections mandatory for most people, according to the CIA World Factbook. Some of these nations include Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Greece, Lebanon, Mexico and Thailand. It’s an eclectic list, including many South American countries.
Australia, my favorite nation and continent, made voting in federal elections mandatory in 1924. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, the federal Australian law in question, states: “It shall be the duty of every elector to vote at each election.”
It was a fast road to compulsory voting for Australia. First, they made voter registration compulsory in 1911, and then the Australian state of Queensland made voting obligatory in state elections in 1915. Other states followed Queensland’s lead: Victoria in 1926; New South Wales and Tasmania in 1928; and Western Australia and South Australia in 1942.
Voter turnout in Australia has been above 90 percent in every federal election since 1924. In 2004, Australia’s federal election had a turnout of 94.34 percent. The rates of voter registration, called “enrollment” down under, are consistently above 95 percent. In 2004, of the 13,098,461 enrolled Australian voters, 12,354,983 turned in ballots.
Australia’s total population was 21,262,641 in July 2009. To have over 12 million citizens vote in an election in such a small country is remarkable. Out of the 21 countries that theoretically mandate compulsory voting, Australia is actually one of the few to actually enforce the law. There are small fines for not enrolling if a citizen is eligible, and the fine for not turning up to vote or turn in a ballot by various other means is $20 Australian, or $18.30 in U.S. dollars.
High voter turnout is not the only advantage of compulsory voting. For example, enacting compulsory voting in the U.S. could turn political dialogue away from the extremes of all sides. Political candidates could focus on persuading voters on the issues, and not spend all their time pandering to special interests and political bases in an effort to get people to the polls.
Moreover, incidents of voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression, in its many nefarious forms, could potentially become a thing of the past. Many cases of voter intimidation have been aimed at minorities and low-income areas, where voter turnout is usually lower anyway. Compulsory voting could have the ability to override these attempts to suppress voter turnout, making voting more accessible.
The Constitution of the United States requires citizens to pay taxes and submit census forms. We have laws that require children to attend school, and we require the fulfillment of jury duty. Voting is possibly the most important of these civic duties — and one that is constantly taken for granted by Americans. Making voting compulsory is not a detriment to our freedom; it is a method of increasing it. A government that more accurately reflects the will of the people, and not just the people with the means and motivation to vote, would benefit us all.
Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and page designer for the Missourian. She is a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.