We'd need a lot more voting booths.

Photographer: Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

Universal Voting Won't Bring Americans Together

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Some bad ideas just won’t go away. Last month the Brookings Institution joined the recent chorus of voices calling for compulsory voting in federal elections. The authors prefer the softer term “universal,” but it’s the same mischief: Vote or be punished.

I’ve written about this issue several times now, ever since President Barack Obama, speaking off the cuff, brought it up earlier this year. The Brookings report, the latest in a cascade of endorsements, is titled “The case for universal voting.” It was written by William Galston and E.J. Dionne, both of whom I know and admire. Both men are important voices on the sensible side of many, many issues. But this time they’re wrong.

Regular readers will know that I have a bias. I am a happy nonvoter, and am decidedly unenthusiastic about the idea that the government might force me to the polls. I’ve written more than once about the perniciousness of the idea. Others have argued even more extensively for the right not to vote.

The Brookings report is optimistic. The authors are trying to deal with what they see as serious threats to democracy: increasing polarization and the underrepresentation of particular groups of voters. That second point is where they begin, with the familiar proposition that the electorate (especially in midterm elections) is demographically quite different from the population as a whole. In particular, “citizens with lower levels of income and education are less likely to vote, as are young adults and recent immigrants.” Because these groups are less likely to vote, the argument runs, they are less likely to be represented.

The implicit suggestion is that changing the demographics of the electorate would change the outcome of elections. Any number of observers have argued for compulsory voting on partisan grounds -- that the result would be a boost to the Democratic Party, or at least lead to more liberal policies. Galston and Dionne avoid this cynical view.

Yet would outcomes be different? The Pew Research Center, shortly before the 2014 midterm election, issued a report on what it labeled “The Party of Nonvoters.” No one will be surprised to learn that those who stay home are less affluent, less educated and less white than those who vote. But on the issues, they often line up closely with the voters: A plurality of nonvoters opposed the Affordable Care Act, for example, and, at the time of the poll, nonvoters were as hotly divided as likely voters on Obama’s job performance.

Galston and Dionne also bemoan what they see as low turnout, even in presidential election years. Using figures from the American Presidency Project, they point out that Obama won elections in which turnout was 58.23 percent (2008) and 54.87 percent (2012). Those levels, they insist, are too low. By this logic, however, the most legitimate president was Rutherford B. Hayes, whose 1876 triumph brought 81.8 percent of eligible voters to the polls. The least legitimate was Bill Clinton, whose 1996 re-election marked the only presidential contest in U.S. history where a majority of eligible voters stayed home.

Besides, the American Presidency Project figures don’t prove what the authors say they do. The turnout they lament hovers around the same levels the nation saw from 1920 to 1948, even if one averages in the surges above 60 percent in 1936 (in effect, a referendum on the New Deal) and 1940 (a referendum on the coming war). The supposed good old days of steady turnouts of above 60 percent actually encompass only five postwar elections, from 1952 to 1968.

True, it’s easy to look at those years with a certain nostalgia. But we mustn’t forget that the postwar era was thick with social norms -- not only about the importance of voting, but also about the importance of gender roles, of faith in God and of saluting the flag. Strong norms can’t be abstracted from the cultures in which they occur. The nation then was significantly less libertarian than it is now.

For a book currently in progress, I’ve been looking in detail at the colonies and states where voting was once required. They tended to be places where expectations were many and freedoms were few. For example, the 1636 version of the compact of New Plymouth assessed a fine of three pounds sterling for any freeman who failed to vote “without due excuse.” This was a great deal of money in the 17th century, easily dwarfing the fines of three shillings for refusing to work on the highways when ordered to do so, and 10 shillings for a freeman who did not keep a musket, sword, 2 pounds of powder and 10 pounds of bullets. There were also fines for not attending church services and missing town meetings.

The report’s final claim is that compulsory voting will lead to a decrease in political polarization. The authors point out, correctly, that the people who vote now tend to be more committed partisans than the people who don’t. But that’s just another way of saying that the people who care most about the outcome are most likely to vote. It seems odd to suggest that the cure for polarization is jail time for those who care less.

That’s right. Jail time. Supporters of compulsory voting always insist that they have nothing so extreme in mind. But in Australia, a mandatory voting nation that the authors used as a model, some 43 people were sent to jail after refusing to pay the fine for not voting in the 1993 election. The number of refusants in 2004 (the last year covered by the study) was 140, but the report was issued in 2005, and doesn’t tell us how all their cases came out.

Galston and Dionne are trying to solve genuine problems, but their solution interferes too far with individual liberty. William Wilson, chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in the early 19th century, wrote in 1843: “The legislature can no more compel a man to vote, than they can say for whom he shall vote. Such a power would be subversive of the fundamental principles of the government.” Translation: The big men with guns have no business slapping the cuffs on me if I stay home on election day. I obviously think Wilson was right. And I’m not alone. A Rasmussen survey immediately after President Obama’s remarks found respondents against compulsory voting 65 percent to 25 percent.

Sounds to me like a pretty democratic result.

  1. For well-crafted arguments on either side, see here.

  2. In Australia, a mandatory-voting nation held up by the Brookings report as a model, each of the two studies the authors cite found no persuasive evidence that the compulsory voting laws change the outcome of elections.

  3. Actually, the American Presidency Project numbers only go back to 1828.

  4. People of Illinois ex rel Redman v. Wren, 4 Ill. 269, 284 (1843) (Wilson, C. J., dissenting). No, no, I am not cheating by quoting the dissent. The case was not about whether the state might force a citizen to vote. Chief Justice Wilson was drawing an analogy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net