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.