The idealism of self-governance requires that state sovereignty be built solely on the diverse interests of a nation’s populace. By dispersing power based on the preferences of the people, voting ensures that this notion of autonomy is kept alive. Unfortunately, our nation voluntarily shuns such idealistic opportunity by failing to incorporate the wishes of all citizens in the governing process; voter turnout in the United States is among the lowest of industrialized democracies.
In the election last week, having been deemed the most important of a lifetime, despite insurmountable attempts to reach out to voters, a mere 60 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. Sadly, this proved to be the highest turnout in over 60 years; the average national elections have historically received input from around 50 percent of the eligible American electorate.
We classify our government as many things, but when nearly half the population opts out of its civic responsibilities, can a true democracy be one of them? Rather than bribing citizens’ votes with candy bars and bottled water, we should be bribing citizens’ brains by making their civic duties unavoidable.
If we wish to ensure the legitimacy of a true democratic nation, then we should consider altering voting from an individual option to a societal obligation. Just as jury duty and paying taxes, stipulations for being an American citizen should include voting requirements. This will especially adhere to the poor voter turnout of local and state elections, where the nationwide average hovers between a pathetic 35 to 40 percent. No longer could people complain about the inconveniences of voting; they will become pains everyone must endure.
Compromises will have to be made (as they are for jury duty) to appease everyone. America’s democratic foundation should ensure leaders are adequate representatives of a clear majority of all citizens, instead of the selections of a majority of only half the population. Many other democratic states, most notably Australia, have seen mandatory voting laws create a habitual propensity to be civically active, as well as an increase in citizens’ interests in their countries’ political practices.
Compelling citizens to vote is no more an unlawful enforcement than expecting their service on juries. We require the latter to ensure the quality of the American justice system, should we not require the former to ensure the quality of the American electoral system? Voting, in the same regard as taxes, should be considered not an optional, participatory right protected by the First Amendment, but an obligatory responsibility for living in this great country, a contribution made by everyone (like taxes) in order to preserve the identity and quality of our governing system.
Every election, whether local or national, routinely faces two barriers. The first is to register citizens and convince them to vote. The second is to inform the voters so they know who to vote for. Why not abolish the first barrier through a federal mandate, leaving all resources available to hurdle the second one? Think of the money to be saved; instead of grassroots organizations spending countless hours just to get people registered and willing to vote, more energy can be funneled into educating the public.
Mandatory voting holds the potential to increase awareness among the common citizen; people would be more prone to pay attention if their vote was required, as opposed to being able to skip the political process altogether. By reaching out to those with no definitive faction allegiance or exclusive left or right political ideologies, we would witness a sharp increase in independent voters; increasing the odds that leaders would be elected based on their public loyalties, not their party loyalties. Politicians would be forced to speak to citizens, not just “voters,” addressing the issues and concerns of everyone.
Despite the educational opportunities mandatory voting would bring, no doubt some votes would be cast with a blind eye and a deaf ear; people who lacked any knowledge of the candidates would choose randomly. But if we are going to pride ourselves on symbolizing an ideal government for the rest of the world, then we must give citizens the choice to vote meaningfully or thoughtlessly, not the choice to be civically irresponsible. If citizens decide to be ignorant of politics, and of those for whom they cast their vote, it is a choice that the people can make, forcing us all to pay firsthand for the apathetic tendencies of our peers.
Such concerns should not, however, deter us from holding citizens directly accountable for the governing of this nation. The people’s voice must be heard, but it must be of all people, not ones who have the time, privilege, knowledge, opportunity and willingness to be involved and informed. Mandatory voting is the only way to prevent apathy and ignorance from unraveling the one remaining political ritual that ensures America’s democracy.
Adam Lichtenheld (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freshman majoring in political science and international studies.