Voting in the United States is a privilege and a right of all citizens. Strangely enough, this “right to vote” is not explicitly stated in the Constitution. Six constitutional amendments were passed to guarantee voting rights to different groups of citizens. The Constitution leaves the determination of voting qualifications to the individual states. Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining. The decline in voting has also accompanied a general decline in civic participation, such as church attendance, membership in professional, fraternal, and student societies, youth groups, and parent-teacher associations. Low turnout can be attributed to a number of reasons to include indifference, contentment, or disenchantment. So why don’t Americans vote?
Thomas Jefferson said “Freedom is lost gradually from an uninterested, uninformed, and uninvolved people.” Voting is considered optional and requires a conscious effort to register and actually vote in a given election. Meanwhile, voters are many times apathetic and misinformed on the issues and vote accordingly. Winston Churchill remarked “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter” “Get-out-the-vote” drives are usually driven by the political parties to mobilize single issue voters to swing particular elections. Nearly half of the electorate pay no income taxes at federal level and a growing percentage receive “earned income tax credit” (refunds to people who pay no taxes). Some suggest restricting voting privilege to those who actually pay taxes, since they would have “skin in the game” and interest how their taxes were indeed spent.
Instead of focusing on mobilizing the low information voters (“Get-out-the-dopes”) each election, we should focus on mobilizing every eligible voter to participate in elections. Thomas Jefferson said “Ignorance and sound self-government could not exist together: the one destroyed the other.” The assumption is that the higher the election turnout, the more likely that the elected officials represent the popular opinion. Jury duty is a civic obligation, sourced from list of voters. Voting should likewise be redefined as a civic obligation – a responsibility of citizenship. There are twenty three countries that have compulsory voting which results in over 80% voting in each election. Compulsion can have a dramatic effect on voter turnout, even if the vote is for “None of the Above.” Mandatory voting may be enforced with a penalty for not voting, but tax incentives have been more effective at driving behavior. Higher participation will not guarantee better choices, only more representative choices.
It is an oft repeated platitude that greater voter participation yields a healthier republic. Mandating voting is an opportunity to not only increase voter participation, but also fix several other related voting problems. Compulsory voting requires unique voter identification to ensure citizens only vote once. Voting need not be confined to a physical voting place, but instead can be implemented on an electronic voting system that can be internet enabled. One person / one vote can be recorded up to and including election day and can be captured anywhere there is an electronic device, thus eliminating all absentee ballot and election site issues.
The U.S. military may finally be able to vote and have their votes included in their district counts seamlessly and efficiently. In fact, the U.S. military can be used as the pilot for this new system since they are already dispersed around the globe, suffer from a historic low participation rates, and frequently are unable to return to their home districts for registration and / or actual voting. Compulsory voting ensures that government does indeed represent the will of the whole population, not merely the section of the population that decides to express their opinions.
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