Should It Be Illegal to Sit Out an Election?
In the name of “strengthening our democracy,” a Massachusetts legislator named Dylan Fernandes has introduced a bill to force Bay State citizens to vote in November general elections, whether they want to or not. In California, assemblyman Marc Levine goes even further: Declaring that “democracy is not a spectator sport,” he has submitted legislation to strong-arm Californians into taking part in every election, including local and primary contests.
Their goal is to make democracy better, but their results would make it worse.
Presumably, Fernandes and Dylan would not describe their respective bills in this fashion. But if their bills to make voting mandatory become law, Massachusetts and California citizens would lose their freedom to cast a ballot, and would be saddled instead with an obligation to do so. (In fact, Fernandes specifies that a Massachusetts resident who fails to vote is to be punished with a tax surcharge.)
Like all rights, the right to vote is inseparable from personal autonomy. Under the Constitution, you are free to own a weapon, to believe in God, to write a book, to run for office — and therefore, by definition, you are free not to do those things. Voting is no different. Your liberty to participate in an election encompasses your liberty to ignore that election. Voting is a legal right, not a legal duty. A law that makes your vote compulsory is a law that robs you of that right.
Fernandes and Dylan are not the first to suggest that it be illegal to sit out an election. On at least two occasions, President Barack Obama suggested that adopting compulsory voting in the United States would be “transformative” because it would “make people feel more invested” in the political system. In a nationwide Canadian survey last fall, 62 percent of respondents expressed support for mandatory voting. In a number of countries, voting is already obligatory and, in some of them, nonvoters are heavily penalized. In Brazil, for instance, those who skip an election are barred from government jobs and public housing, and cannot get a passport.
Not surprisingly, voting rates are considerably higher in countries where voting isn’t optional: More people will do just about anything if the government punishes them for not doing it. Advocates of compulsory voting may regard such coercion as less than ideal, but they regard the benefits of higher turnout levels as well worth the loss of freedom.
“If the United States had mandatory voting,” wrote economist Dambisa Moyo in a New York Times column last October, “there likely would be a greater turnout among lower-income groups and minorities, which could lead to a change in the types of politicians elected.”
Maybe so. But can democracy really be enhanced by forcing ballots from unwilling voters?
Voting in America has never been easier, after all. From automatic voter registration to polling places that stay open for weeks to voting by mail, virtually anyone who wants to vote in this country is able to with little or no trouble. By a wide margin, people who don’t vote don’t wish to vote. The data consistently show that people who skip elections do so largely because they aren’t interested in the election or don’t like the candidates. Many are convinced, with reason, that their vote won’t matter anyway. There is nothing wrong with not caring about politics, or with having better things to do than vote. The thought may be blasphemous to those who worship at the altar of voter turnout, but not voting is a legitimate and often reasonable choice. That choice ought to be respected, not derided or punished by law.
The late Charles Krauthammer once defined a liberal, in jest, as someone who doesn’t care what you do as long as it’s mandatory. There could hardly be a clearer example of that mindset than the idea that people should be forced to vote. Nor could there be a more counterproductive insult to America’s democratic traditions. A ballot marked under duress is a vote not for democracy, but against it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).