Vote, You Apathetic Bastards, Or Else!

Journalist Matt Bai makes a convincing argument here in favor of the U.S. following Australia’s example and requiring citizens to vote. Australia instituted compulsory voting in 1925 after a turnout of 59% in their previous election. Last year, Australia’s turnout was 93%. Our turnout was 58% in our last presidential election and 41% in our last midterm election (the one that determined every seat in the House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate, various governors, state senators, mayors, etc.).

Australia isn’t the only country with compulsory voting. It’s especially popular in South America, where Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay penalize people who don’t vote.

If you don’t vote in Australia, you have to explain why or else pay a fine of about $20. If you don’t pay the fine, you might end up in court, be fined $170 and have a criminal conviction entered against you. Of course, it’s possible to submit a ballot without voting for anyone. Abstention is legal, but failing to cast a ballot isn’t. (The Australian Election Commission answers questions here.)

Bai considers various arguments against compulsory voting. For example, voting is too difficult for some people now – we’d have to make it easier if it was compulsory (which we should do even if it isn’t compulsory). Another obvious argument is that it would be an infringement on individual rights (imagine the outrage from Fox News!) – so abstain if you want to.

One big argument he doesn’t consider is that we shouldn’t encourage anyone to vote if they don’t care who wins. Many Americans aren’t interested in politics, for whatever reason. Others are interested but think there’s no real difference between the two major parties. Unfortunately, people in the first group aren’t paying attention and neither are people in the second group.

The fact is that in order for a democracy to accurately reflect the will of the majority, people need to vote, even if that means showing up (or mailing in or logging on) and stating “no preference”. If America is going to be a democracy, we need to register our opinions. If we won’t do it voluntarily, we should suffer some consequences. Those of us who vote are already suffering consequences because non-voters don’t vote. 

2 thoughts on “Vote, You Apathetic Bastards, Or Else!

  1. Wow … have you actually thought about this at all, or are you simply quoting the popular line?
    Sometimes the only freedom we have left is the freedom to not.

    Consider an election: you are ill and may vote the medicine to cure you. On offer, strychnine, arsenic, and cyanide. Whom do you vote for? I think you’d abstain.

    Then along comes a well-intentioned soul with nothing but your interests at heart who draws a gun, points it at you and says blithely “Vote! Vote, damn you, it’s no longer voluntary—compulsory now! And get a move on!”

    • There’s no need for the ad hominem remark, but yes, I have thought about it a lot. So I was pleased to read Bai’s article. Our democracy is dysfunctional. There should be a number of reforms. Reminding people that they’ve got a civic duty to vote might address several problems, as Bai points out. Even in Australia, hundreds of thousands of people still don’t bother voting. So they pay $20 for the right to live in a democracy in which they don’t participate. Big deal. Or they waste their time going to court and maybe end up with the equivalent of a traffic ticket. No guns involved. You or I might choose to abstain, in which case we’d be on record as some of the Americans who didn’t like the alternatives. Having abstainers make their “none of the above” opinion known would be better than having politicians who win elections by getting the support of 25% of the adult population claim they have the support of “the American people”.

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