In the last general election in Australia in 2013, 93 percent of eligible voters came out to cast a vote. In Belgium, voter turnout in 2014 was 89 percent; in Brazil, 81 percent. In the United States, meanwhile, the 2008 presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney drew the largest turnout in recent history—but still just 62 percent of all registered voters came out to be counted. And that is huge compared to this year’s Mayoral primary, when only 27 percent of voters cast a ballot to determine who will likely run our city for the next eight years.
What does Australia have that we don’t? Better politicians? More civic-mindedness? Nothing better to do? Along with 26 other countries, Australia has a law requiring that every eligible citizen casts a ballot in every election. (Another eight countries—including Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Chile—had a similar law, but abolished it.) Ten of those countries admittedly don’t enforce it; the rest use a mix of sanctions to compel voting—fines, disenfranchisement, inability to acquire or renew a passport, loss of government benefits, even imprisonment.
And it has worked. Research from Stanford University Political Science Professor Simon Jackman shows that compulsory voting increases voter turnout between 7 to 17 percent on average. On the other hand, countries that have abolished compulsory voting—like Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Chile—have seen the opposite. When Venezuela abolished compulsory voting in 1993, for example, turnout dropped dramatically, from consistently over 70 percent to 50 percent. In Chile, which abolished its law in 2012 to attract younger politically-alienated voters back to the polls, turnout instead plummeted from 80 percent to 40.
With more voters has also come more voting equity. Across time and across most countries, experts agree that voting by choice means the wealthy vote at higher rates than the poor. But as voter turnout increases, that shifts, making a higher turnout more accurately reflect the national population.
Research shows that mandatory voting increases turnout between 7 to 17 percent on average. On the other hand, countries that have abolished compulsory voting—like Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Chile—have seen the opposite effect.
That’s what Pres. Obama referenced in March at a town hall event in Ohio, when he suggested making voting mandatory for all American adults. “It would be transformative if everybody voted,” he said. “That would counteract money more than anything. The people who tend not to vote are young; they’re lower-income; they’re skewed more heavily toward immigrant groups and minorities.”
This is certainly true of Philadelphia. According to the most recent census data, Philadelphia is 36 percent white, 44 percent black, 14 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian, with 27 percent of residents living in poverty. But, as nationwide, our electorate skews white and wealthy—and old. Voter turnout in the May primary was highest in Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, and the far Northeast—all of which are whiter and have very low rates of poverty—while turnout was lowest in the high-poverty and majority black wards of North Philadelphia. Of 321,000 millennials registered to vote in Philadelphia, only 39,000 (12 percent) showed up, making them the biggest group in the voting population—and the group least likely to cast a ballot. Meanwhile, 45 percent of Philadelphians 65 and over voted in the May primary, as well as 38 percent of those 50 to 64.
Imagine if 80 to 90 percent of Philadelphians had cast a ballot. The political landscape would be very different, indeed.
So could it work here? Not without jumping over a lot of hurdles—first and foremost, ideology. “Compulsory voting sounds to me like mandatory fun,” says David Thornburgh, President and CEO of Committee of Seventy, an independent watchdog and voter education organization in Philly. “It sounds punitive. And that doesn’t just quite sit well with me.”
It’s also unclear what form such a law would take here. What sort of sanctions would there be? What legal excuses would count for exemptions? Would people who are illiterate, or who don’t speak English, still be compelled to vote? What if they couldn’t pay the fine? Who would cover the cost of sanctions—an issue that has left some countries unable to enforce their laws.
In the United States, Republican opponents of compulsory voting fear the results, as higher turnouts tend to favor the Democratic party. But some also say it is flat out unconstitutional, because it violates the First Amendment—which could be interpreted not only as the right to speak, but the right not to speak—and the 24th amendment, which prohibits making voting contingent on paying a poll tax.
On the other hand, proponents retort that the government already uses, or has used, fines and coercion to enforce policies that they believe benefit the public good—like taxes, military draft, and the requirement that children below the age of 18 be enrolled in school. And they say mandatory voting could actually save money—or at least redirect it towards better voter education—because campaigns would no longer have to spend millions to “get out the vote.”
“It would be transformative if everybody voted,” President Obama said about compulsory voting in March. “That would counteract money more than anything. The people who tend not to vote are young; they’re lower-income; they’re skewed more heavily toward immigrant groups and minorities.”
There is precedent: Article 12 of the state constitution of Georgia, passed in 1777, reads, “Every person absenting himself from an election, and shall neglect to give in his or their ballot at such election, shall be subject to a penalty not exceeding five pounds; the mode of recovery and also the appropriation thereof, to be pointed out and directed by act of the legislature: Provided, nevertheless, That a reasonable excuse shall be admitted.” But as the antiquated sum implies, the provision is never enforced.
Closer to home, State Senator and unsuccessful Democratic mayoral candidate Anthony Williams has flirted with the idea of proposing legislation in Pennsylvania. In a March memo to fellow legislators asking for co-sponsors he wrote, “Voting is one of democracy’s most fundamental rights and duties…This bill would emphasize the duty to vote by making it compulsory.” The memo proposes that all fines collected would go to “funding public education to provide for a well-informed citizenry.” But Williams’ legislative director, Kyle Miller, says the bill was never drafted and that Williams has since abandoned it. “Sen. Williams is very interested in measures that could increase voter participation and turnout in Pennsylvania, and had hoped to use the bill as an opportunity to start a discussion,” Miller says. “But he got some push back and he decided not to go ahead with a full bill at this time.”
Thornburgh suggests a compromise: Rather than compulsory voting, Pennsylvania should pursue initiatives that would boost turnout by making voting simpler and more convenient—like it did in September by joining 21 other states in offering online registration. Those methods could include mail-in voting, online voting, early voting, and Saturday voting. Oregon, Washington, and Colorado now conduct all of their elections exclusively by mail-in ballot which arrives well in advance of election day; and since March of this year Oregon automatically registers eligible voters using their DMV information. Oregon had a turnout rate of 83 percent in the 2012 presidential election, and Washington 81 percent; the figure in Pennsylvania was 67 percent.
“I’m more interested in walking down that road first in Pennsylvania,” says Thornburgh, “before we start discussing compulsory voting.”
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