While speaking in Cleveland yesterday President Obama came out in favor of making voting in elections compulsory:
In Australia and some other countries, there’s mandatory voting. It would be transformative if everybody voted — that would counteract money more than anything. If everybody voted, it would completely change the political map in this country. Because the people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups… So that may end up being a better strategy in the short term.
While there may be some benefits of mandatory voting, counteracting the amount of money in politics is not one of them. In fact, it would likely increase the amount of money spent on campaigning.
Currently, political campaigns spend a lot of money targeting likely voters and getting them to the polls. Mandatory voting would eliminate the need for spending on get-out-the-vote efforts, but it would make targeting voters even more essential. Political parties would have a need and an incentive to spend millions—perhaps even billions—more on campaigns since they would need to reach millions of additional, low-information voters.
But there are two other reasons why mandatory voting would be a terrible policy:
Compulsory voting violates civil liberties — The government and politicians serve the people, not the other way around. Citizens should not be obligated, by force of law and against their will, to participate in a electoral system. Padraic McGuinness makes a powerful point about how mandatory voting is violation of liberty:
One of the worst features of totalitarian or oppressive regimes is that it is necessary to take an interest in politics under them, either as a result of coercion into official demonstrations and so on or in order to contest their power. Surely it is a fundamental human right to be left alone, to be allowed to live one’s own life within the law but otherwise unmolested, and to take no interest in policies at all except by choice. Compulsory voting, by imposing participation in the election of politicians and governments, infringes the right to be apolitical.
Compulsory voting doesn’t change political ignorance — Just as you can force a horse to water but can’t make him drink, you can force a voter to the polls but can’t make him think. Many people choose not to vote because they are disengaged from or apathetic about politics. There is no evidence that requiring people to vote provides sufficient incentive for them to gain the information necessary to cast an informed ballot. The decision not to vote is therefore a rational one for those who have not put in the time or effort to discern which electoral choice is best for them or their country.