Mandatory voting, often referred to as “compulsory voting,” is a structure where the laws of a nation require eligible citizens to register and vote in elections. If the voter chooses not to vote, then penalties can be imposed if a sufficient reason for not voting cannot be provided.
In the American 2020 Presidential election, 22 million more Americans voted compared to the 2016 election. Still, only about two-thirds of eligible voters voted. Usually, the number rests at about half of eligible voters. Local and midterm elections are worse. For example, less than 37% of eligible voters voted in the 2014 American midterm elections.
At least 26 countries require mandatory voting for all eligible citizens according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. In Australia, for example, where voting has been mandatory since 1924, people who fail to vote may receive a notice in the mail seeking an explanation of their failure to vote. If the explanation is not accepted, then first-time offenders are fined $20. That fine is increased to $50 for those who have paid previous penalties or been convicted of failing to vote. In Australia, voters who do not respond to the notices sent by mail or refuse to pay their assigned penalty could lose their driver’s license.
There are certain pros and cons of mandatory voting that must be considered when examing from a balanced perspective whether all citizens should be required to vote.
List of the Pros of Mandatory Voting
1. It allows the government to reflect the wishes of the majority.
One of the biggest compulsory voting pros is that more voters are communicating their desires through the voting process. When mandatory voting is not part of a country’s laws, then voter participation can be very low. Out of 35 peer countries, the United States ranks 28th in terms of total voter turnout. In the State of Hawaii, the average voter turnout is somewhere around 50%. In West Virginia, the average voter turnout is just 52.9%. In Australia, where mandatory voting is enforced, turnout rates are often above 90%. That means the government is a better reflection of the population.
2. It limits the voices of the extreme.
Another big compulsory voting pro is that it limits the voices of extremist views that can impact the direction of the government because compulsory voting requires everyone who is eligible to vote. That allows the government to pursue legislation that is more centrist in nature, which benefits the general society more than one political side or the other. By protecting against the extreme, potentially vulnerable minorities have more protections available to them as well.
3. It reduces election costs.
Another benefit of mandatory voting is a reduction in election costs. In Australia, the election costs per voter, for each major election that is held, is about $15 per voter. Since 1990, the cost per voter has increased about 15% with each subsequent election. In the United States, where mandatory voting is not part of the electoral process, state elections can be much more expensive. In Iowa, the cost per voter for elections was $39.11 in 2014. In New Hampshire, it was $50 per voter. Then, in Alaska, the cost per voter was $120.59.
4. It reduces “red meat” conversations in the election process.
In the United States, many voters are motivated to vote for their preferred candidate because that person supports one core social issue. Many voters vote with their bank accounts in mind in the U.S., even if issues like abortion, religious freedom, or gun rights are part of the equation. With mandatory voting, candidates can focus on more issues than the “red meat” items. Deeper conversations about where to take the country become possible.
5. It encourages voters to be informed about candidates and issues.
There will always be people who go to the voting booth to make random votes because they want to avoid paying the penalty for not voting. Under a mandatory voting structure, however, many voters do more research on candidates and core issues because the mandatory voting structure encourages them that they have a voice. They engage in debates and confront controversial ideas that may not work. That ultimately results in legislative decisions that help more people overall.
6. It makes it easier for citizens to cast their ballots.
Advocates for mandatory voting typically use Australia as a model. There, voting is made easy. Voters complete their voter registration online, voters vote on a certain Saturday, and they can go to any voting station in their area to vote. In Australia, the experience is a community event and part of the culture. In fact, Australian voters often purchase a “democracy sausage” (bread with sausage in it) after casting their ballot. By comparison, anyone who has tried to vote in the United States knows there can be confusion about getting registered, when to vote, and where to vote. Making voting mandatory would shift the burden from the individual in figuring out how to get it done, to the state in making it easy and accessible. Right now, in the USA, it is a civic duty, but generally not a celebratory experience.
7. It makes voter suppression less of an issue.
In the 2020 American Presidential election, the Republican Party took a number of actions in the name of ensuring integrity to the voting process and reducing or eliminating fraudulent voting. The Democratic Party interpreted these actions as voter suppression tactics. If voting were clear and easy, as it is in Australia under its mandatory voting system, the question of fraud would be much less of an issue. That would reduce the need to take actions to ensure integrity which others see as voter suppression.
8. It combats the influence and power of the uber wealthy in politics.
In a speech given in March 2015, Barack Obama expressed support for mandatory voting because he said that it would bring in the voice of people who tend to vote less. These people are generally young, lower income, and skewed more heavily toward immigrant groups and minorities. With these currently underrepresented segments of society voting, the money spent by powerful lobbyists and rich donors would have less impact on election results. Obama stated: “It would be transformative if everybody voted — that would counteract money more than anything.” As an aside, Canadian Liberal leader Justin Trudeau also publicly supported compulsory voting in statements he made in 2015.
9. It contributes to the stability of democracy.
A fundamental benefit of mandatory voting is that it supports democracy, which exists through and by participation from the people. The less people vote, the less decisions made by government will be seen as legitimate and representative of the desires of the people it governs.
List of the Cons of Mandatory Voting
1. It eliminates the concept of having freedom.
The biggest compulsory voting con is perhaps that it eliminates the concept of having the freedom whether or not to cast your vote. Voting is certainly a privilege. Some would even call it a civic “right” or “responsibility.” In countries where mandatory voting is not part of the government structure, the decision to not cast a ballot is still a vote. It is a vote that says the voter rejects all candidates, the structure of the government, or other personal reasons. The choice to not vote speaks of more freedom than the requirement to vote or pay a fine.
2. It can reduce interest in local elections.
Many voters do educate themselves on core local issues to make informed votes when an election day rolls around. Compelling citizens to vote is not a guarantee that a voter will decide to be actively involved in an election. Voters could choose candidates randomly. They could purposely vote against certain proposals or candidates to be disruptive. For these people, the funds spent on issue awareness are basically wasted.
3. It forces people to pay penalties for following their religious beliefs.
An important compulsory voting con is the consideration of certain religious groups and their religious freedoms. There are several religious groups that have rejected participation in politics. The largest group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, has 8.2 million adherents throughout the world. About 70,000 of them live in Australia, where mandatory voting forces them to serve their faith or their government, but not both. Old Order Amish, Christadelphians, Doukhobors, the Baha’i, and the Shaykhiya are all known to reject participation in politics as well.
4. It increases the costs of law enforcement.
Although mandatory voting may decrease the cost per voter in an election, the process of enforcing voting laws creates an increased cost for local law enforcement officials. Notices were sent to a majority of the 6% of people who did not vote in the last election in Australia. Enforcement of penalties comes at a cost as well. For those who refuse to pay an assigned penalty, the costs to enforce a revocation of a driver’s license and other penalties have a cost as well.
5. It increases the rates of informal voting.
In Australia, informal voting (also called spoiled ballots) is defined as a ballot that has not been properly completed. These ballots are not counted towards a candidate or issue. Blank ballots, those without official marks, or papers that identify the specific voter are all common reasons for ballots to be considered informal. Since ballots do not identify specific voters, that means compulsory voting doesn’t actually create a vote in all circumstances. Voters just need to show up and make sure their ballot is cast.
In 2013, 5.9% of votes that were cast in Australia’s election were informal, which was the highest rate since 1984. Informal votes that were classified as deliberate went from 34% in 2001 to 49% in 2010. Informal votes are like a not-vote vote, which is the same as someone in the U.S. choosing not to vote. It inflates participation rates and nothing more.
6. It waters down political campaigns.
When everyone is required to vote, politicians must campaign with all voters in mind, not just their trusted base. This means that their message needs to be one that includes and benefits everyone, resulting in politicians taking positions on issues that are not necessarily ideal because they are trying to get votes from everyone.
7. It increases uneducated voting.
An important compulsory voting con is that people may cast their ballots, but not do so intelligently. In other words, just because people are forced to vote does not mean that they can also be forced to be informed about the issues and make a decision about who they think is the best candidate. They just have to choose a candidate, any candidate, to fulfill the voting requirement and avoid a penalty.
Those who choose not to vote may be doing so because they do not feel appropriately educated on the issues, or feel they do not have enough information to take a position on a candidate. Forcing them to vote is forcing them to simply toss a coin and pick someone.
8. It can lead to bad policy outcomes.
Requiring all citizens to vote may result in politicians choosing to focus on marginal voters and swing voters instead of their trusted base in order to win the election. Marginal and swing voters tend to be more easily persuaded, and some have argued that these voters prefer simple explanations to complicated and nuanced reasonings on issues. This can lead to avoiding more beneficial and sophisticated legislation for the sake of simple answers to capture the swing votes.
9. It increases the negative campaigning and advertising.
Haydon Manning, associate professor at Flinders University in Australia, wrote that his country’s compulsory voting system requires politicians to use “banal sloganeering and crass misleading negative advertising” in order to woo disengaged citizens. In Manning’s view, this diminishes the democratic experience for those who think through the various political issues.
So, should all citizens be required to vote? These mandatory voting pros and cons suggest that requiring people to vote can create more awareness of societal issues and increase participation rates. At the same time, compulsory voting may simply waste time and money for some voters because they show up to avoid a fine, but still don’t actually cast a formal vote.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.