For Better Democracy, Make Everyone Vote

By Orszag, Peter | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), June 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

For Better Democracy, Make Everyone Vote


Orszag, Peter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The United States prides itself as the beacon of democracy, but it's very likely no president has ever been elected by a majority of American adults.

It's our own fault -- because voter participation rates are running below 60 percent, a candidate would have to win 85 percent or more of the vote to be elected by a majority.

Compulsory voting, as exists in Australia and more than two dozen other countries, would fix that problem. As William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues, "Jury duty is mandatory; why not voting?"

Mandating voting has a clear effect: It raises participation rates. Before Australia adopted compulsory voting in 1924, for example, it had turnout rates similar to those of the U.S. After voting became mandatory, participation immediately jumped from 59 percent in the election of 1922 to 91 percent in the election of 1925.

The political scientists Lisa Hill and Jonathon Louth of the University of Adelaide note that "turnout rates among the voting age population in Australia have remained consistently high and against the trend of steadily declining voting participation in advanced democracies worldwide."

For economists, the puzzle is not why voting participation rates are so low in voluntary systems, but why they're so high. The so- called paradox of voting, highlighted in a 1957 book by the political scientist Anthony Downs, occurs because the probability that any individual voter can alter the outcome of an election is effectively zero. So if voting imposes any cost, in terms of time or hassle, a perfectly rational person would conclude it's not worth doing. The problem is that if each person were to reach such a rational conclusion no one would vote, and the system would collapse.

Mandatory voting solves that collective action problem by requiring people to vote and punishing nonvoters with a fine. In Australia, the penalty starts small and rises significantly for those who repeatedly fail to vote.

Beyond simply raising participation, compulsory voting could alter the role of money in elections. Turn-out-the-vote efforts, often bankrolled by big-money groups, would become largely irrelevant. Negative advertising could be less effective, because a central aim of such ads is to discourage participation in the opponent's camp.

The other effects of compulsory voting are more difficult to assess and tend to divide political scientists. Some proponents, such as Mr. …

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