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Under Discussion: Democracy Demands More than Your Vote

photograph of protesters occupying Brookyln Bridge

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Democracy’s Demands.

It took roughly thirty minutes for people to start arguing about what to do once reports of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death became public on the evening of September 18th. With fewer than two months left before Election Day, it was not immediately clear that Ginsburg’s replacement could — or should — be rushed through the confirmation process before November 3rd. And many were quick to say, in no uncertain terms, that they thought it inappropriate for the president to nominate another justice, given the political circumstances. Consider this tweet from author and producer Reza Aslan:

Nevertheless, it quickly became clear that partisan interests would indeed take center stage in the final weeks of the election cycle with (eventual nominee) Amy Coney Barrett’s name circulating as a likely contender for the seat even before Ginsburg’s body had been laid to rest. Despite public opinion polls indicating that a consistent majority of voters want the winner of the 2020 presidential election to nominate RBG’s replacement, President Trump and Senate Republicans have worked hard to pack up the Supreme Court before November, nonetheless.

And, despite Mr. Aslan’s September suggestion, nothing has been burned down.

While some protests, both in Washington and at the homes of several Senate leaders, have materialized, the dominant prescription to voice public opinion on the matter has pointed towards one place: the ballot box. In a manner reminiscent of former President Obama’s famous “Don’t boo; vote” call, politicians, pundits, and other media personalities have, with increasing fervor, exhorted the American people to get to the polls. And though it is hard to measure the impact of a “Souls to the Polls” event or a special reunion of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, early calculations suggest that Americans are indeed voting in record-shattering numbers, with voter turnout in 2020 already matching 12% of total voter turnout in 2016.

Of course, for someone specifically interested in voicing their displeasure at the partisan abuse of the currently-vacant SCOTUS seat, pleas to vote in an election that won’t be decided (and whose winners won’t be installed) until well after Judge Barrett becomes Justice Barrett might seem beside the point. Furthermore, even if the timeline were different, the SCOTUS-motivated voter would be casting her ballot in support of a candidate who would also receive support from thousands of other voters and it’s far from clear that the entire group would be voting for exactly the same reasons. Politicians frequently aim to build coalitions of differently-motivated voters for precisely this reason: opinions vary, not only about answers to political questions, but about which questions are most important to ask in the first place. For all its virtues, the “one vote, one voice” mantra fails to account for the unavoidable homogenization of voter’s voices in support for a single candidate.

This is roughly why the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called voting a “trap for fools” that prevents people from exercising their true power as citizens. Championing instead the formation of interest groups that can wield political power about the specific values around which they unify, Sartre saw voting as an institutional mechanism for “serializing” the citizenry into complacent powerlessness. According to Sartre:

“When I vote, I abdicate my power — that is, the possibility everyone has of joining others to form a sovereign group, which would have no need of representatives. By voting I confirm the fact that we, the voters, are always other than ourselves and that none of us can ever desert the seriality in favor of the group, except through intermediaries. For the serialized citizen, to vote is undoubtedly to give his support to a party. But it is even more to vote for voting…that is, to vote for the political institution that keeps us in a state of powerless serialization.”

By assimilating variable support for a panoply of initiatives and desires into the discrete affirmation of only a handful of individual politicians, Sartre saw representative-based voting as a flattening of a person’s public agency.

And, indeed, the drafters of the U.S. Constitution would seem to agree. Writing in the Federalist Papers, James Madison warned about the dangers of public sentiment forming “factions” that could ultimately overthrow the system he and his friends were constructing. To Madison, this was a problem for two reasons: firstly, populist forces could easily be swayed by the manipulative power of demagogues (a point Alexander Hamilton discusses at length in Federalist No. 68), and, secondly, voters could form factions — what Sartre would call “groups” — that would threaten the “various and unequal distribution of property” within the United States. In Federalist No. 10, Madison outlines a defense of what would become the Electoral College as a cooling mechanism that could prevent popular ideas from being quickly turned into federal policy, saying “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it.” Indeed, Madison’s “republican remedy” looks strangely similar to Sartre’s “powerless serialization,” but whereas the former views it as a solution to a problem, Sartre sees it as a problem of its own.

But, for all their disagreements, I think that Madison and Sartre would nevertheless agree on at least one thing: the practice of voting is not the chief duty of a democratic citizen. When not plagued by manipulative efforts to suppress voter turnout, the standard electoral process is a relatively easy responsibility that takes — again, in ideal circumstances — only a short amount of time every few years. But Sartre ridiculed those who “have been persuaded that the only political act in my life consists of depositing my ballot in the box once every four years,” arguing instead that the life of the political agent is suffused with a constant responsibility to attend to, speak up about, and organize both supports and protests in service of public issues.

In a similar way, later in his life, Madison defended not only public education, but specifically for “the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property” so that, among other things, the electorate would be both more informed and more equipped to engage in political life; indeed, to Madison, the operation of such “learned institutions” to enlighten the public is “the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.” So, for both Madison and Sartre, politics was not simply a matter of semi-annually marking a ballot, but required diligent, regular attention to important matters of public concern, educating oneself and others so as to bring about the overall best state of affairs.

To be clear: my point is not to cast doubt on the value of suffrage, but to recognize that whatever virtues (pragmatic or otherwise) it may hold, the general election does not exhaust the duties of a responsible citizen in a modern democracy. Protestors, educators, and other servants of civic welfare who care for justice to be understood and upheld are just as crucial for the vibrant operation of our republic as are poll workers and voters.

As Hamilton himself wrote in The Farmer Refuted, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature.” Democratic citizens who take that identity seriously should exercise these human rights and responsibilities in ways that far exceed the always-soon-to-be-musty ballot box.

Considered Position: Flawed Democracy – Voter Participation

photograph of "Vote" written on chalkboard with drawing of American flag

This piece concludes this Considered Position series on the United States’ claim to being a “flawed democracy.” To see the earlier segments, start here (part 2, part 3).

Most people need to vote if we want most people’s interests represented. Unfortunately, a great number of people don’t vote. Either because they are prevented from doing so or because they just don’t care, many people who can legally vote don’t. In this section we will explore the idea of the “rational nonvoter.” To do so, we will consider debates around mail-in voting. Afterward, we’ll examine what may be the greatest roadblock in having a functioning, representative democracy: voter apathy.

Mail-In Voting

In recent days, mail-in or absentee voting has gotten a lot of press. COVID-19 poses a significant threat to the upcoming election. Either people go to the polls, and the virus spreads and kills, or people don’t go to the polls and the low voter turnout diminishes the legitimacy and representativeness of the results.

One prominently suggested solution to this dilemma is to have people just vote from home via mail-in ballots. Absentee ballots are already used by military personnel while serving abroad. But they are also used domestically. All states allow at least some citizens to vote absentee and more than two-thirds allow all citizens to vote this way. Those states without “no-excuse” mail-in voting require some sort of reason that explains people’s inability to physically come to the polls. Lastly, some states conduct elections entirely by mail and automatically send ballots to all registered voters.

A number of Republican politicians, including Trump, have opposed this solution, typically spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation to justify their position, but most people, including many Republicans, support some sort of solution like this. Besides the patently false idea that mail-in voting increases voter fraud in any significant way, there is one common bad reason for opposing mail-in voting. As Trump himself put the common Republican worry, “if you’d ever agreed to [universal mail-in voting], you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Fortunately, this too is false. While increasing access to mail-in voting might increase turn-out and increasing turn-out sometimes modestly aids Democrats in elections, it really matters more who turns-out, and the evidence suggests that “universal vote-by-mail has no impact on partisan turnout or vote share.” In other words, if it changes anything, universal vote-by-mail increases the number of votes, but doesn’t do much of anything to affect who those votes are for.

Nonetheless, as we’ve discussed before, you can be right about something even if you don’t have good reasons. That’s the difference between true belief and knowledge. And in fact, there are some very good reasons to be wary of universal mail-in voting. It may be more of a necessary evil than a universal boon.

Probably the single greatest problem with mail-in voting is the loss of the secret ballot. “The secret ballot” refers to how, when you go to the polls to vote, you can vote whichever way you want without anyone knowing. This is fundamental to democracy. If people are paid or coerced to vote one way or another, the democratic process is delegitimized. With a secret ballot, it is still possible to pay or threaten someone to vote a certain way, but there is no way to confirm if your bribe or threat worked since no one but except maybe a few election officials will ever see your vote. So it isn’t much done. However, with mail-in voting this all changes. Someone’s abuser can stand over them, force them to vote one way, and seal and send the envelope themselves. A corrupt caretaker can do the same to an elderly person. And so could a parent coerce a child. Even without the threat of force, more subtle forms of coercion, including moral judgment and social pressure, can be much more powerful when the coercer can confirm whether or not you listened to them.

In addition, none of these examples even touch on the possibility of buying people’s votes. There are two main ways ballots are checked to make sure they are legitimate. First, there is the ballot itself. It is printed on very special paper with a special code, unique to each registered voter. This way, it’s almost impossible for people to make counterfeit ballots. Second, many states use signature verification to assure a particular voter was really the one filling out their ballot, and the United States Postal Service (USPS) has procedures for tracking mailed ballots and flagging potential fraud.

However, all this only stops people from wholly counterfeiting votes. It is perfectly possible for a real person to receive their ballot, sign it, and sell it to someone else. Even if the ballot is not mailed from the voter’s house, this will not result in it being flagged as potentially fraudulent by the USPS. This is because of the legality of ballot collection in some states. Ballot collection is the process of people other than the voters themselves collecting and submitting voters’ ballots. In some places, this is limited to family members or caretakers. In other places, people working for political campaigns can do it too. The potential for fraud is there and it would likely be difficult to identify and prevent. However, it cannot be reiterated enough that this does not happen sufficiently frequently to have been responsible for any election to have gone one way or another.

In any case, coercion of this sort would seem to be small-scale and disorganized. An abuser’s coercion of someone’s vote in one direction will be countered by another abuser’s coercion of someone’s vote in the other direction. The fact that ballot collection isn’t legal in most places, and that where it is legal there are usually limits, means buying votes in the way I described on a large-scale would be difficult. It would be tough to do systematically and given that the margins on elections are usually on the order of magnitude of at least thousands of votes, it would take a lot of work to change an election. Plus, the aforementioned USPS flagging would require any would-be election buyers to deposit those thousands or tens of thousands of ballots in a wide enough area to not arouse suspicion. And, finally, keeping any such operation secret would require each of those thousands of bought-off voters to keep quiet. The odds of this happening on such a large-scale are on par with the odds of other large-scale operations like the moon landing being faked.

On the other hand, there are some seriously good reasons to support universal mail-in voting. The biggest reason here has to do with those rational nonvoters I mentioned at the start. A rational nonvoter is someone who doesn’t vote who is rational in the economic sense. What this means is that for these people, the cost of voting to them surpasses the cost of not voting. A great deal of people, as we will discuss in more detail later, do not think their votes matter, mostly because of the influence of corporate interests like the ones we discussed when we talked about Citizens United. And if your vote doesn’t matter, why waste your time and gas money driving over to the polling station? More importantly, why take off time from work? Economic circumstance discourages many people from voting. Fourteen percent of registered voters who didn’t end up voting blame a conflicting schedule or being too busy. Filling out an absentee ballot, in contrast, is easy. They send it to you and you don’t even need to buy a stamp. By decreasing the cost of money and time in voting, you make it easier for voters to rationalize voting. And as we said at the start, the more voters, the more accurately an election represents citizens’ interests.

Universal mail-in voting would be a big change to our electoral system. Whether that change would be for the better or for the worse depends a lot on what precautions we take. Mail-in voting has real potential for fraud, even if it hasn’t commonly happened in the recent past. At the immense scale required to have universal mail-in voting for America’s hundreds of millions of registered voters, it’s certain any cracks in the system will be tested. As with any issue, we are forced to weigh the benefits and costs but we won’t really know whether we made the right choice until after the election is done.

Voter Apathy

If COVID-19 keeps a great number of people from turning out in the 2020 election, questions will be raised about the election’s legitimacy. If only a fraction of the population votes, and only a plurality of those votes are for the winning candidate, it will be difficult for the winner to claim a mandate from the people. At the same time, it would be hard for things to get much worse than they already are, turnout-wise.

In the 2016 election, 55.67 percent of the voting-age citizen population voted. That’s way lower than most other democratic nations. Let’s take things further. Donald Trump won the 2016 election according to the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, garnering only 46.09 percent of the votes cast. Doing some math here, we can see only 46.09 * 55.67 = 25.66 percent of the population cast a vote for the current President.

It is difficult to compare the election of our president to the elections of Prime Ministers in parliamentary states but doing so may give us a rough idea of how poor our president’s mandate is (importantly I don’t just mean Trump here: US turnout hasn’t changed much in the last several decades). Belgium had the highest turn out of any nation in 2014 at 87.21 percent. And, the governing coalition held 83 of 150 seats in their Parliament. With the same calculation, we can say roughly 48.25 percent voted for the ruling government. This is clearly a much stronger mandate.

Low voter participation raises fundamental questions about our democracy. A basic view of representative democracy (the sort we have) is that a representative only deserves power if they have popular support. The laws, too, are only legitimate if they are enacted by a government which has popular support. Ultimately, society and government are social constructions; they are part of the social imaginary. They don’t exist in the world like rocks or trees. So the power and effectiveness of government, much like the power of Santa Claus on small children, depends on how much people believe in it.

And people don’t believe in it very much. Around 30 percent of registered voters who did not vote in 2016 did not vote either because they “did not like the candidates or campaign issues” or because they were “not interested” or “felt [their] vote would not make a difference.” The former reason was more common than the latter but 2016 wasn’t terribly representative of people’s general reasons for not voting. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were both disliked more than any candidates in recent memory. But more familiar is the sentiment people have that their vote “would not make a difference.”

There are a number of reasons for this sentiment. Foremost among these is a concern with money’s influence on elections. About 57 percent of people agreed in a poll with the statement “politics and elections are controlled by people with money and by big corporations.” This is an issue we have covered at length already. In short, there is little regulation on campaign donations and what regulation there is isn’t enforced very well.

Another major reason for people’s apathy toward voting is that they don’t think their votes matter in a numerical sense. In a nation of over 300 million people, the role each individual vote has in determining a presidential winner or loser has little relevance. This argument stems from a bit of a logical fallacy though. Consider a jar with red and blue sand. When mixed, it appears purple. And every grain of sand is very small. You can pluck out any grain of sand, red or blue, and say “this grain of sand is so small, it has no contribution to the color of this jar.” And when you remove it, you don’t change the color of the jar. Does this prove your point? Of course not. By the same logic, you could claim to be able to remove all the sand, grain by grain, and that the jar would remain purple instead of clear. You could claim the same about removing all the blue sand or red sand.

When one person or one grain of sand is missing from the ballot box or jar, the color of the results doesn’t change. But if many people do not vote, the outcome can change. The only case where it wouldn’t would be if those who didn’t vote were represented perfectly by those who did. If you’re the only one not voting in your whole state, yeah, your vote or lack thereof probably doesn’t matter. But when upwards of 20 percent of the population thinks that way and elections are decided by single digit margins, it is irrational for all those people to think their votes don’t matter. It’s the same logic that advocates apathy in the face of climate change and we all know how helpful such apathy has been so far.

One legitimate grievance voluntary nonvoters have (for many people are prevented from voting by reasons outside of their control) is that candidates don’t represent them. The fault for this at least in part lies with the primary system. Political primaries are the intra-party elections held to determine which candidates will represent the parties on general election ballots. These only started happening in the 1900s and had little real influence in the determination of candidates until the 1970s. Before this, party conventions decided who would be on the ballot. Typically, the candidates were chosen by conventions based on electability. Party values were secondary to victory. Nowadays, however, primaries dominate. However, it’s not immediately clear why this objectively more democratic system should lead to problems with how well candidates represent voters.

The best way to think about it involves first remembering how little people participate in elections in the first place. If you think turnout in general elections are bad, you will struggle to believe how bad turnout is for primaries. Only 28.5 percent of eligible voters voted in both parties’ primaries combined in 2016. Only those who care most about politics are going to turn out for these, and it’s easy to see that people with more extreme beliefs are thus going to turn out than people with moderate beliefs. People aren’t passionate about moderation and compromise. This leads to more extreme candidates being elected by primaries. Those who end up thinking about voting in the general elections will be far less extreme and will thus feel unrepresented leading them to refrain from voting.

Political primaries would be a great thing if everyone voted in them: they are certainly more democratic than the older convention-based system of candidate selection. The people who rallied for them to become the standard for candidate selection were not malicious or stupid. Just as we have seen with a variety of political problems, the cause can often come from rational and benevolent individual decisions. The same goes for corporate campaign donations. While the surface-level behavior of corporate donors seems greedy and self-serving, the roots can be good.

If we are a democracy, we need to encourage changes to our electoral system that will maximize the amount of democratic participation. Those reforms could take any number of shapes but they must be made for change in any other domain to occur. Without democratic legitimacy, any leader, whatever they do, is ineffectual, since their actions are not representative of the will of the people.

Conclusion

This series concludes with a discussion of voter apathy because it is a problem that must be resolved before change can be made for the better in any of the domains we have discussed. People have to care. They have to learn and think. And we have to take care as a community to watch over one another to assure none of us contributes to something terrible out of an innocent or even benevolent motive. Even after reading all of this, having seen all these arguments and motives laid out, it is unlikely that you will change your behavior anymore than I have for learning all this. As Portia said in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

“If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.”

Nonetheless, life is a series of moments. And if in some of these we remember what we have learned, we might make the right decisions. To be apathetic is to submit to the unconscious, amoral, tide of the structures of our societies that already have great control over the paths we take. And so long as we push, just ever so slightly, perpendicularly to that tide, exerting some small amount of free, conscious will, in just a very few moments, from time to time, things can change and for the better. To refrain from even this is a choice that cannot be blamed on the system, even for all of its ills.

The mission of the Prindle Institute for Ethics is to foster the skills of moral reasoning that give us the real freedom to choose in those few, decisive moments. Without these skills, the possibility for even small change in those moments is lost. Without them, the unconscious tide is all there is. As we have discussed throughout this series, plenty of extraordinarily harmful actions can be superficially justified and rationally so. And the systems under which we live, this tide, strongly incentivize us to adopt some of these while ignoring broader reaching, more complex moral concerns.

Whoever you are, whatever issues you care about, if you live in a democracy, elections and election reform are critical. Those minutes spent voting are some of the few moments where we have the chance to participate in decisive action. This series has been a depressing one, pointing out flaw after flaw in the electoral system. But we can’t just give up and focus on how depressing it is. We must think critically, examine our values, and place our focus instead on what the world can be. As the Lorax famously said in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,

Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

What Is Voting?

close up photograph of male hand putting vote into a ballot box

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


On August 8th the National Speech and Debate Association released the new high school Lincoln Douglas debate topic for the months of September and October. The new topic is:

“Resolved: In a democracy, voting ought to be compulsory.”

One thing I’ve noticed is that whether one thinks voting should be compulsory often depends on what one understands voting to be.

To illustrate, consider the ‘expressive’ view of voting, according to which the reason people vote is not to change policy, but as a way of expressing preferences (like cheering on one’s sports team). Expressive voting is normally presented as a descriptive theory of voting; it is an explanation of why people vote despite Downs paradox — given there is no real chance your vote sways an election, doing almost anything else makes more sense.

But suppose we accepted expressive voting as a prescriptive theory, suppose we thought the point of having elections is to give people the chance to express themselves. In that case you would probably reject compulsory voting.

Much of the expressive value of a vote comes from that fact that people choose to speak. As Ben Saunders puts it “if we grant that there is expressive value in [people] voting . . . it is presumably dependent upon their proper motivations and lost if they vote for the wrong reasons.” If we thought the reason for having the vote is to allow people to express themselves, that would inform our voting laws. It would speak against compulsory voting, and might even speak in favor of other voting reforms.

Expressive voting is a particularly easy-to-follow example, but it’s not a plausible candidate for why we hold elections in the first place. So why should we use majoritarian systems to select policies and leaders?

No doubt there are lots of answers that can be given, but here I want to distinguish two common explanations. First, you might think that voting is a fundamentally competitive activity by which we fairly resolve conflicted interests. Second, you might think that voting is a way by which we incorporate citizens into the legislative process.

On the first view, democracy is like a market, it allows us to make decisions otherwise too complex for any one person to make. An example may help. Suppose a group of friends and I are deciding where we want to go to dinner (we can engage in the fantastic daydream where you can not only be with friends but also go out to eat again). Some want Mexican food and some want Chinese, but we would all rather go to either place together than split up into two groups. Now, given that there is a conflict between our preferences, we need some procedure to resolve this conflict, and one plausible candidate is we should go where the majority of people want to go. After all, by going where the majority of people want, we will treat one another fairly because we will weigh each person’s preference equally. (Of course we might choose not to go where the majority wants every time, perhaps we go where the majority wants a majority of the time and where the minority wants a minority of the time; that too might be fair.) Thus, we decide to vote. By voting, we determine where to get dinner.

But how should I cast my vote. Should I vote for the place I personally prefer, or for the place I think the majority wants to go?

Given my commitment to fairness, I really do think we should go wherever the majority wants. Thus, you might think, I should vote for where I think the majority prefers to go. Except, of course, that ruins the election. Suppose seven out of twelve people want Mexican, but the people who want Chinese have been more vocal and so most of us think that the majority of people prefer Chinese. If we all vote our personal preference, we will reach the answer we all want. In contrast, if we all vote for what we think the right answer is, then we will end up making the wrong choice.

It is not selfish to vote for the restaurant you would personally prefer to eat at. Why not? Because you are not actually saying that is where we should go. In participating in the vote you are saying we should go where the majority pick; in voting you are simply contributing your little bit of information to the collective knowledge pool. Even though my actual deep preference is to go where the majority would prefer. I should not try to vote for where the majority prefer because the whole point is to use the vote to reach that decision (saving us from needing to figure it out ourselves).

This is of course a common view of the role of voting in a democracy. Voting is a way to synthesize preferences across large numbers.

Just like free markets allow us to reach efficient systems which no individual person is capable of reasoning to, so you might think that well designed electoral systems create a disaggregated decision procedure where each person’s pursuit of private interests secures the public good more effectively than an alternative.

(My favorite vision of this view of democracy is articulated in Chapter 2 of Posner and Weyl’s absolutely fabulous book Radical Markets.)

In contrast, there is a second view according to which democracy does not integrate our private preferences into some efficient response to the public good. Rather, democracy itself provides an opportunity for everyone to partially legislate. By voting we act as a citizen, we enter into the general will, and in the process we come to share in the nation’s self-determination and sovereignty.

Viewed this way, voting is actually somewhat like serving on a jury. As District Judge Young argued in 1989, the jury plays a central role in our system of justice because it ties the deliverance of judges to the judicial standards of the citizenry. The jury acts as a representative of the population, and thus embodies the democratic idea that justice should ultimately be placed in the hands of the governed.

Like jury duty, we might think in voting we really are, in a small way, acting as a legislator. We are not registering our preference and then allowing the collective structure to issue its judgement, rather we are each making our own best judgement and deferring to the general consensus when others disagree.

While talking with debaters and reading the academic literature on compulsory voting, I eventually realized that people’s background assumptions about what voting was influenced their thoughts on if it should be compulsory. If I choose not to register my vote for where to go to dinner, I am thereby strengthening the vote of everyone else; I’m making their preference carry a little more weight. In contrast, if I regard voting as me playing my legislative role as citizen, then in declining to vote I’m actually hoisting a greater responsibility on others. I’m failing to provide my own counsel to temper there’s, and so increasing the deliberative burden on them to get the answer right. What you understand voting to be can change in fairly profound ways whether you’re inclined to compulsory voting (for more arguments on the subject see the definitive introduction, namely Brennan and Hill’s Compulsory Voting: For and Against).

Yet, despite these background assumptions being operative, very few people noticed the background disagreement on what a vote is. I myself had firm beliefs on lots of questions about voting, but have only now realized I don’t have a very clear sense of what I understand democratic voting to be.

So how should I understand the vote. I am unsure. If we just cared about producing the greatest social good, I expect something like Posner and Weyl’s quadratic voting system really would be best — it would utilize market principles and wisdom of the crowd to disaggregate decision-making allowing the system as a whole to consider more information than individual voter’s can consider themselves. The election thus is far more than the sum of its parts.

Does this mean I should vote in my self-interest rather than the national interest (just as I should vote where I personally want to get dinner)? Probably not. Perhaps we would make better decisions if everyone voted that way. But most people don’t vote that way. Instead they vote for the candidate or policy they think is best for the nation as a whole. People both self-report to vote in what they regard as the nation’s interest, and voting patterns suggest people don’t just vote in their self-interest (Brennan and Hill 39-40 provide an overview to the literature). Given that that is how others vote, it would seem unfair to vote in your own self-interest (even if we could design an electoral system where voting personal preference is neither unfair nor selfish).

And indeed, on the whole perhaps a system where we all vote for what we think is the national interest is better. While we are probably better at figuring out what is in our own self-interest (and so using external procedures to synthesize those judgements), perhaps the real value of democracy is not in making the best decision but rather in allowing each citizen to share in the sovereign act of legislation. Perhaps better that the ruled are also, in some sense, the rulers rather than outsourcing sovereignty to the opaque judgments of a market system.

Compulsory Voting in America

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


Voter turnout in America is infamous for being extraordinarily low. Consistently, between 50% to 60% of eligible voters actually turn out to vote in presidential election year; the number is even lower during midterm elections, when the election is perceived as lower stakes. The 2014 midterm elections saw a dismal turnout of 36%. In 2016, voter turnout was at a 20-year low, with 55% of the age-eligible population voting in the presidential election. This means that a very small percentage of the country actually votes for the winning presidential candidate, and/or the members of both Congressional chambers, and that nearly half the country does not participate in the selection process. Some countries have taken what appears to be a drastic approach to resolving this problem: compulsory voting.

More than 20 countries around the world have adopted compulsory voting programs. Compulsory voting is just what it sounds like: by law, all those who are eligible to vote must vote. While compulsory voting sounds like a policy that would take place in an authoritarian regime at first glance, compulsory voting laws tend to have relatively lax punishments for refusal to vote. The Atlantic reports a $20 to $50 fine in Australia for those who fail to have an excuse for not voting, and no laws prohibit voters from simply turning in a blank ballot if they so choose. Turnout in countries with compulsory voting can be as high as 85%. This turnout remains consistent in most elections. Due to the strikingly low voter turnout in the U.S., President Obama endorsed the idea in 2015 when asked about economic inequality.

A compulsory voting law may in fact be beneficial for the U.S. Countries with compulsory voting laws have lower wealth inequity, next to no political corruption, and higher faith in the democratic process. Working class voters who tend to not participate in elections or those voters disengaged from the political process would have to get involved; Australia also experienced a low voter turnout rate before switching to compulsory voting in 1924. Voter disenfranchisement has been a hot topic across the nation for years – whether it’s voter ID laws that restrict access to the polls, elections happening on days in which low-income workers find it nearly impossible to get off work, or polling locations that are not easily accessible. Therefore, the well-off have significantly more power in politics than the average citizen. Compulsory voting laws would serve to level the playing field at least somewhat, giving those who are typically underrepresented a more significant voice, thus forcing politicians to address the needs of those communities.

Some of these issues could also be resolved through expanding access to voting. Some proposed solutions include extending early voting, moving Election Day from a Tuesday to a weekend, automatic registration upon receiving a driver’s license. One issue with compulsory voting laws is enforcement – a $20 to $50 fine every two years isn’t a steep enough fee that most households can’t pay it and have to vote. Laws like this are difficult to enforce when the consequences are not steep. Other experts told Business Insider that, since Americans tend to value individual liberty very highly, adding another mandatory civic duty on top of taxation and jury duty would generate too much political backlash. Finally, compulsory voting tends to make the country swing to the left, since many non-voters lean Democratic. Therefore, predominantly Republican states would likely not support the laws on a state level, and the federal level would likely not be able to implement the laws if Republicans held both or either chamber and/or the White House.

Given that such a low percentage of Americans actually vote in elections, some changes to the voting system need to be made to ensure that Americans are fairly getting their say in elections. While compulsory voting may never be a policy in America, or at least not in the foreseeable future, taking steps to improve voter turnout by revamping the voting process would be beneficial to those who are underrepresented in our democracy.

Vote On Principle*

Donald Trump. Not a day goes by when I don’t hear that name. It is constantly on the news and it is what everybody is talking about. So much so, it is almost inescapable. This man has killed it. Since the start of his campaign he has managed to grasp the attention of the media, the nation and the world by saying whatever he wants, especially if it causes controversy. This tactic—whether purposeful or a mere reflection of his values and beliefs—has worked: Donald Trump is essentially the de facto Republican nominee. So hats off to you Mr. Trump, you have shown us how anger (against “Washington” politicians) and fear (of economic instability, foreigners, etc.) can be preyed on to mobilize a campaign to win. In the meantime, the Republican Party is struggling and making a concentrated effort to unite the party behind their champion. This might prove to be a challenge because Trump has essentially vilified everyone: not only his former opponents running for the Republican nomination (and in one case their wife) but entire nationalities, ethnicities and religions.

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