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A Path Toward Universal Voting

English writer Daniel Defoe famously said that only two things in this life are certain: death and taxes. After a dismally low turnout in the 2014 midterm elections, folks are considering adding voting to that list, but should we? And—for proponents of compulsory voting—what’s the fairest, most commonsense way to go about mandating the vote?

The idea for compulsory voting as a solution to low voter turnout has been bandied about for a while now but has generated some buzz since Election Day. The philosophy behind it is pretty simple: democracies function better with full participation and the most fundamental way for citizens to engage the system is to vote. So, why don’t we mandate it? We certainly have other compulsory systems in our country: taxation, jury duty, education and registering for Selective Service—things many agree are essential to a healthy democracy.

Demos issued a report on the policy earlier this year. Millions to the Polls explored a compulsory voting policy as a measure toward universal voting in the United States. In the report, J. Mijin Cha and Liz Kennedy identified 32 countries that require their citizens to vote for at least one office or in at least one jurisdiction. Nineteen of those countries enforce the requirement, most often through a small fine. The country that has garnered the most attention for its compulsory voting laws is the Land Down Under.

Between 1912 and 1924, Australia introduced laws for compulsory enrollment and voting. In its system, citizens are required to report to polling stations on Election Day and, upon receiving their ballot, can decide to vote or discard it. If that’s not done, non-voters are required to provide a “valid and sufficient” reason for failing to vote or pay a $20 fine. Simple. 

Before compulsory voting was introduced in 1924, turnout in Australia’s nine previous House of Representative selections averaged 64.2 percent. In the nine elections that followed, turnout averaged 94.6 percent. Studies analyzing the change in turnout concluded that compulsory voting was responsible for the spike.

But in addition to requiring that citizens vote, Australia has great success in increasing voter turnout because the overall system facilitates the mandate.

Australia’s Election Day is on a Saturday, allowing most eligible voters to cast ballots without work or school conflicts. The country also has fairly convenient voting with mail-in ballots and mobile polling places. Their option to discard the ballot provides an exemption for those who refuse voting for moral, religious or ideological reasons. Finally, Australia has a compulsory enrollment law which allows citizens as young as 16 to register to vote.

If the pundit class is going to urge the United States to adopt compulsory voting, there are a number of common sense fixes that must also take place in our electoral process. Voters need dedicated, guaranteed time off to vote; easier early and absentee voting; a “none of the above” option on ballots; automatic voter registration and increased funding for election administration.