By Alaina Perdon
Elm Staff Writer
As Americans, we are privileged to live in a society in which we have the right to decide our country’s political course by casting our vote. Yet, our nation continually faces the issue of low voter turnout, meaning not every community’s voice is well-represented. Mandating voter participation could solve this disparity, ensuring equal opportunities for representation.
The 2020 presidential election saw record-breaking voter turnout; the United States Elections Project reports that almost 150 million people cast a ballot. But this election was a historical outlier.
During the 2014 midterm elections, national voter turnout rates were at their lowest levels since 1942, with less than 37% of the eligible population making it to the polls, according to U.S. Elections Project reports. More striking, voter turnout can be as low as 4% when municipalities hold special elections.
To ensure an effective democracy in which politicians represent the interests of all citizens, it is essential that as much of the population votes as possible. When there is low voter turnout, a small percentage of the population can end up controlling major political decisions. U.S. Censusing data shows these fortunate individuals most often reside in predominantly white, wealthy communities.
“Voting access is the key to equality in our democracy,” former U.S. house representative John Lewis said. “The size of your wallet, the number on your zip code shouldn’t matter. The action of government affects every American so every citizen should have an equal voice.”
Poor voter turnout cannot simply be attributed to inaction on the part of the individual. While the poll taxes and literacy tests of early-1900s America are behind us, voter suppression is still a reality plaguing minority communities.
A joint investigation by Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic found twice as many Black and Hispanic individuals were incorrectly told they were not listed on voter rolls at the polls during the 2016 presidential election compared to their white counterparts. Similarly, twice as many minority voters reported difficulty finding a polling place in reasonable distance from their homes, a statistic further supported from research by NBC indicating that frequent changes to polling-site locations hurt minority voters more than white voters.
“It would be transformative if everybody voted,” former President Barack Obama said in a March 2015 public address. “The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily toward immigrant groups and minorities.”
It should already be the responsibility of the federal government to ensure all citizens have reasonable access to a polling location, an efficient voter registration process, and other election resources; however, the U.S. has clearly failed its citizens in these respects. The barriers placed to curb minority votes are an obstruction of democracy, benefitting only the fortunate few while marginalized communities continue to go underrepresented.
Mandatory voting, or civic duty voting, would eliminate some of these barriers, allowing fair representation of currently marginalized communities.
“Casting a ballot in countries with civic duty voting is often easier than it is in the United States. Registering to vote is a straightforward and accessible process, if not automatic; requesting a ballot or finding your polling place typically does not require calls to your local supervisor of elections or constantly checking online resources to ensure that your polling location has not changed,” Brookings Institute research analyst Amber Herrle said in a proposal for a nationwide voting mandate.
Civic duty voting shifts responsibility from the voter to the state, forcing the government to provide these necessary resources to its citizens. After adopting a civic duty approach to voting, Australia began using mobile polling facilities in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and remote Aboriginal communities to ensure that those who are unable to get to a polling location can still vote, according to a 2015 report by FairVote researcher Nina Jaffe-Geffner.
Prior to Australia’s implementation of mandatory voting, the voter rate had reached a low of 47% of registered voters, according to Jaffe-Geffner. Once voting was legally mandated, turnout rates increased, with over 80% of the eligible population participating in the last election.
One of the major arguments given by those against compulsory voting is that it leads to a greater number of uninformed voters. Roll Call columnist and stringent advocate for mandatory voting Norman Ornstein notes that, “those who choose not to vote are generally less educated on political issues.”
While uninformed voting is a valid concern, Ornstein argues this would incentivize federally regulated political outreach and education, making all citizens more politically informed.
Implementing mandatory voting may not be a feasible change for the U.S. without years of planning, but facing in that direction, even on a municipality level, would begin a positive shift in U.S. voter turnout.
To uphold our democracy, the U.S. should consider changing policies to make voting easier and more accessible for everyone. More voters at the polls means fair representation of every demographic, guaranteeing actual liberty and justice for all.
Featured Photo caption: With countries like Australia enforcing mandatory voting laws, many wonder if similar policies should be enforced in the United States. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.