Deconstructing The Absurdity

Can enforced mandatory voting in a post-industrial United States increase political efficacy?

In Democratic Party, Elections, Electoral process, Republican Party, U.S Congress, U.S States, United States of America on June 3, 2016 at 9:49 am


An outline of the problem

Political participation can assume various forms: protesting, voting and actively engaging in campaign activities, however in industrial democracies, more people vote than engage in a routine mass political behavior. A participatory culture creates an atmosphere where citizens depict a heightened enthusiasm for politics and take pride in the institutions and its roles in public life (Jackman 405). But interest in matters of state and policy framing is dependent on individual experience and relationship to the sociopolitical environment. Sociologist Andrew Perrin posits that we fabricate a “democratic imagination” from experiences in civic life along with other domains such as work, family, and neighborhood. This democratic imagination drives the motivation of getting involved in politics, how to do so and when to stay away (Perrin 2).

A relatively new trend in the American political system is emerging where public engagement with the policy framing process is on a steady decline towards a deep legitimacy crisis. In the 2014 U.S midterm election, a meager 36.4 percent of the eligible voting population showed up to the polls. According to the New York Times editorial board, this national election cycle marked a 70-year low in terms of voter turnout going back to 1942 when 33.9 percent of adults reportedly voted. The excuse in 1942 was reasonable as most young men eligible to vote were fighting in the Second World War (Montanaro et al).

The detrimental aspect of the 2014 midterms was the disproportionate outcome when viewed across the lines of race and ethnicity. According to the latest U.S census data: 75 percent of the population is Caucasian; 12.5 percent Hispanic or Latino (of any race); 12.3 percent African-American; 3.6 percent Asian. The United States has a tremendous mixture of ethnic groups with different expectations from government, however, the exit poll data from the last election shows a grim picture when it comes to representation from the above-listed communities. In the race for the U.S House of Representatives, 75 percent of the voters were white and the next significant number is 12 percent from the African-American community followed by eight percent of Hispanic voters (NBC news).

There is a deep disparity between the highest voting community and the second highest participating racial group, and such a wide gap in a country historically divided along racial lines does not reflect an inclusive system. Political pundits have analyzed every shred of the electoral process for the 2014 midterm election, but the recurring dilemma lands at the low turnout on Election Day leaving much room for speculation.

The Economist, known best as a magazine that analyzes economic policy, releases a periodic global democracy index which takes into account: functioning governments; the electoral process and pluralism; political participation; political culture and civil liberties of every nation in the globe where data on such variables is available. States are then ranked according to the allocated score under the banners of Full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes.

The United States was ranked at number 20 according to the 2012 democracy index released by the Economist that analyzed 163 nations under the same variables. The U.S charted below the Czech Republic, Ireland, Netherlands, Uruguay as well as allied competitors Canada, South Korea, Australia and the U.K. In fact, the American position is just four places away from falling into a “flawed democracy” group. The glaring variables dragging the U.S position to the bottom of the table are political participation and functioning of government.

In light of a situation where political engagement is on a steady decline towards a deepening legitimacy crisis, the goal of this inquiry-based paper is to determine whether a mandatory voting policy in the United States could bolster participation thereby increasing political efficacy in the distant future? Prior literature suggests that implementation of enforced mandatory voting increases turnout on election day as a greater share of the population is coerced to engaging in political affairs of the state. Projecting views and needs of an extremely diverse country, higher voter turnout can bring an increasingly polarized political climate to some level of moderation.

While there may be a reason to believe mandated voting could increase turnout, at the same time there is venerable literature claiming low participation is indicative of satisfaction and a high turnout is undesirable (Jackman 406). Robert Jackman provides an alternative cultural explanation of voting turnout centers on institutional factors according to political scientist Robert Jackman. The author explains that a myriad of institutions has a major predictable effect on national voter turnout that cannot be solved solely by making voting mandatory.

If the goal is to find consensus among citizens in order to choose representatives through a democratic electoral process, this paper seeks to examine whether enforced mandatory voting can be an effective way to evoke a definitive response from the general public. I will be analyzing both sides of the debate with the academic material providing substantive arguments for each side, although this paper will also highlight aspects of the debate that have not been researched and try to connect the missing points through careful analysis and inquiry.

Can mandatory voting be a solution?

It is always a contentious predicament whenever citizens in a democratic nation are subjected to state
injunctions and this seemingly dystopian scenario is no different. At a Cleveland town hall meeting in March this year, President Obama floated the notion of mandatory voting unleashing media frenzy. While some news and commentary outlets were sympathetic to the President’s remarks, others mocked and some dismissed Obama’s remarks regarding mandated voting. Similar to taxation, that is heavily enforced and mandated, compulsory voting is expected to burden the lower-income groups and the less wealthy citizens of the nation whose participation is declining. There are varying predictions on the relationship between income inequality and electoral participation, but the most empirical perspective suggests that income inequality reduces voter participation.

Political philosophers Bob Goodin and John Dryzek argue that as economic power becomes more unequal, the poor reduce political participation because it becomes difficult for them to have pressing issues addressed by the political process (Goodin and Dryzek 300). However, similar research done by political scientists Daniel Stockemer and Lyle Scruggs finds that income inequality does not have much effect on turnout in Western countries. Furthermore, the author’s conclude that making voting a requirement and elections more decisive are two practical ways of bolstering turnout (Stockemer and Scruggs 771). In a column for the Washington Post, author Ruth Marcus also makes a case for compulsory voting citing a 2005 paper for the Inter-American Development Bank that examined 91 countries from 1960 to 2000 and found that strictly enforced compulsory voting improved income distribution.

Mandatory voting is not a new concept. 22 nations around the world make it mandatory for citizens to vote from age 18 according to the CIA World Factbook. Some of these countries are in Latin America although Belgium and Australia are one of the first countries to enforce mandatory voting. Altogether, 744 million people live within nations with compulsory voting laws enforced with strict regulation that involves a penalty fee levied on the individuals who fail to fulfill a civic responsibility unless a legitimate explanation is provided to avoid further sanctions (Santhanam).

Imposing compulsory voting without enforcement is unlikely to boost turnout numbers as shown by Jackman who uses the Italian model in his argument. The only penalty incurred by an offender in Italy is to have the ‘certificate of good conduct’ revoked and the person’s name posted outside the town hall in his/her commune of residence. While the presence of mandatory voting laws provides the disincentive to nonvoting, there is no evidence suggesting such laws generate total compliance (Jackman 409).

Enforcement in most nations aims towards being a financial disadvantage while few nations take the extreme path of bringing legal charges for long-term disengagement. Non-voters, in Switzerland, are charged 3 Swiss Francs (U.S $3); in Austria between 300 and 3,000 ATS (U.S $24-243); in Cyprus 200 Cyprus Pounds (U.S $382); in Argentina 10-20 Argentinian Pesos ($U.S 2.24) and 20 Soles (U.S $6.35) in Peru. Countries like Egypt, Chile, Austria and Fiji impose harsher sentences on non-voters who face possible imprisonment, although such cases are uncommon.

However, in countries like Australia, a penalty fee is a common sanction, while nations like Singapore remove individuals from voter registration unless the person applies again to be included submitting a legitimate reason for not voting. After not voting in at least four elections, Belgian voters might be disfranchised making it difficult to get a job within the public sector. In many cases, like Australia, an acceptable excuse for absence on Election Day will avoid sanctions (“International IDEA”).

Closer in physical proximity to the United States are Mexico and Panama, where mandatory voting has been instituted with possible arbitrary or social sanctions, but the real comparison can be drawn with respect to a nation like Australia. A quick assessment of the country whose political climate closely resembles the United States provides some insightful context. Australia recently charted a voter turnout of 95 percent with ballots intentionally spoiled or completed as a random act of resistance remaining around 2 to 3 percent. When a large mass of the population expresses political freedom, the result is easy to access, corruption-free, well-managed, and cheap to run a government that enjoys an approval rating of 70 percent, as is the case with Australia (Galston).

The notion of “compulsory” in the Australian model is riddled with ambiguity. A controversial report by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (hereafter JSCEM) on the 1996 federal elections in Australia noted that it is compulsory to attend a polling booth and mark attendance against the electoral roll as having attended. It does not compel the individual to cast a vote (JSCEM 138). However, the committees acknowledged a small number of citizens do end up voting that way.

Australian political academic Helen Pringle dissects the assumption in legal and political circles about the claim that an act of marking a ballot cannot be compelled. “It’s an odd claim,” writes Pringle finding it distinctively odious that an individual cannot be compelled to cast a vote, but justifiably compelled to be present at a polling location during specific period of time and performing certain actions with the ballot paper like picking it up and dropping it in a box (Pringle 429). The author states that further clarification is required on what constitutes as voting and what is mandated echoing an argument that mandatory voting may be an illusion in Australia as eligible voters are not even compelled to attend a polling place, but can be penalized for not doing so. Similarly, electors are not compelled to mark the ballot paper (Pringle 438).

Indeed, Pringle is rightfully questioning the validity of compulsory voting laws as the basic act of casting the vote is not mandatory and merely turning up at the poll proves nothing. Other academics have expressed a similar discontent with mandatory voting questioning whether forcing citizens to vote is justified. Annabelle Lever argues that the case for compulsory voting remains unproven. The claim for mandatory voting rests on the assumption about the way non-voters would vote should they be coerced to the polling booth, however, there is considerable and justified controversy on the matter (Lever 71).

A unique contemporary perspective on this important, yet unsettled matter comes from research done by Laura Jaitman on whether mandatory voting affects political participation. Exploiting a natural experiment to exploit the causal impact on turnout and test whether the impact is different across skill groups, Jaitman finds compulsory voting increases turnout by 18 percentage points. The measure also increases turnout twice as much in unskilled voters as compared to skilled voters (Jaitman 79).

Who votes has a significant impact on the political economy as skilled voters have different concerns than unskilled voters. Heterogeneous skill groups prefer policies that affect economic development such as trade policy or optimal degree of redistribution (Jaitman 91). Claiming her literature as first in the field to rigorously show that compulsory voting constricts socio-economic skill bias in political participation, Jaitman concludes that compulsory voting as an institution has the potential to shape composition in terms of skill groups and influence elections results regarding winning platforms.

Importance of Voting: A historical perspective

Image courtsey: Daily Kos

Sociologist Robert Dahl highlights effective participation, voting equality at the decisive stage, enlightened understanding, control of agenda and inclusiveness while discussing the circumstances under which a democratically elected government can function effectively (Dahl 221). According to Dahl, achieving an ideal state of democracy is “theoretical utopia,” nonetheless he calls for politically advanced countries or a polyarchy to have elected officials, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, rights to run for office, freedom of expression, alternative information and associational autonomy as those institutions are a major advance in that they create multiple centers of political power (Dahl 222). The concept of voting should not be taken lightly as an entire nation surrenders responsibility of self-governance into the hands of a small group of people who claim to be representative. Decisions made by those elected officials results in the structuring of daily life for every resident of the nation.

For non-whites in the United States, access and the right to vote free from religious or social dogma did not come easy. The 1866 Civil Rights Act granted citizenship to native-born Americans, but not the right to vote. In 1869, Congress passed the 15th amendment giving African-American men the right to vote although Jim Crow laws plagued the south during much of the time after. By 1940’s, only three percent of eligible African-Americans in the south were registered to vote. Mandated literacy tests and poll taxes were instituted to deter African-Americans from voting until 1964 when the poll taxes were outlawed with the adoption of the 24th amendment.

The Civil Rights movement reached its peak in 1965, triggering the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was an exceptional achievement towards an open and inclusive political system as ratified by former American President Richard Nixon who claimed, “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has opened up participation in the political process.”

With history as evidence, it becomes abundantly clear that tactics of voter suppression has limited turnout dividing national interests of America along racial lines. Even today the U.S is struggling with voter issues across the board as was visible during the 2014 midterms. Several states – such as Texas, North Carolina, and Ohio – are facing legal challenges around regulations such as voter id laws, early voting and same-day registration. Under the Voting Rights Act, states with a history of racial discrimination are required to get permission from the federal government in order to implement any voting laws in a process called preclearance.

As of June 2013, nine states, mostly in the south – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – needed to get any new voting laws pre-approved. In Texas where turnout is low, additional restrictions on voting is did not boost voter turnout (Brandeisky et al). While literacy tests might be part of history, limitations placed on voting such as voter id laws and purging voter rolls still disproportionately affects low-income and minority voters. Voters from a poor economic background and minority voters tend to side with populist parties. Hence in a two-party system, one side is severely affected due to low turnout creating an uneven political field.

A first-past-the-post electoral system followed in the U.S. has created a fragmented lopsided political system relying heavily on preposterous attack ads, copious amounts of corporate financial support and political representatives on both sides of the aisle severely disfranchised with the needs of the people they represent. In 2008, the combined spending by Obama and McCain campaigns crossed $1 billion, but the overall spending on the candidates done by outside groups and independent groups was a total of $5.3 billion, setting a record at the time.

Decreased state regulations on corporations, decentralization of production and population fueled by competitive individualism to accommodate flexible accumulation during the 1973 transition from a Fordism/Keynesian economic model to what economic sociologist Greta Krippner calls “Financialization” was the defining moment in modern the American sociopolitical sphere. Krippner focuses her critically acclaimed research to explore who controls the modern corporations and flow of money in politics and the role of globalization in eroding autonomy of the state. Financialization provides an apt characterization of the world today and clarifies key issues in current areas of debate in social science (Krippner 176).

Fueled by competitive individualism, a decline in collective norms and values decreased the power of nation states as compared to corporations and finance. The Reagan administration charted a very different path for American politics than one envisioned in 1787 with “the business of America is business” attitude, embodied by the Reagan administration, steadily approaching a corporatocracy. In light of elite control on American politics, the state becomes weaker when citizens do not show up at the polls in a large majority. A post-election video blog from the New York Times provides insight into the minds of average voters as some express their relationship to voting and that state. Since no hard data could be collected for this research paper, I will be using testimony from the Times’ video to add to this literature.

Laura Arrington from Baton Rouge, L.A sums up the attitude towards national elections as she finds Presidential elections to be more worthy of paying attention. “With Presidential elections, everywhere you look, you always see the candidates, the issues and the platform they are running on.” Arrington is not alone in reaching the same conclusion. Presidential elections have historically witnessed active voter participation, fluctuating between 52 percent and 65 percent since 1942. The 2010 Presidential election saw 58 percent of voters at the polls. Arrington also believes Presidential elections hold more clout since it’s about “one person who runs the whole country.” Young voters often feel their voice is not being heard and voting is not an effective method to make one’s voice heard.

Todd Key, a young resident also from Baton Rouge, L.A, does not vote because he doesn’t believe the issues concern him. “If I learned more about it and educated myself, I would probably vote more,” says Key, who also acknowledged of being unaware about the basic procedure to vote.

Jana Richards, a young African-American woman from Baton Rouge did not vote during the midterms and said she didn’t know of anyone in her peer group who was registered to vote as they just turned 18. Richards also echoed the importance of Presidential elections making a key point about political science taught in high school emphasizing primarily the history of Presidents of the United States while not emphasizing enough on.

Many young voters across the country admit not knowing much about the current political system as the primary source of information about candidates is being excavated out of campaign ads. The problem with low voter turnout is not just an issue of the youth being absent from the polling booth.

Caryl Schneider, an older Caucasian woman from Arvada, Colorado, said she would not vote, as she did not register in time. Schneider was the only one somewhat upset about ignoring her civic responsibilities.

As is clear from the testimonies in the Times video that interest in government and the policy framing process is dwindling among voters although most individuals have a basic understanding of why voting matters in a democratic nation.


The idea of mandatory voting is complicated and involves multiple layers of analysis from academics, political figureheads and the citizens of the state. From prior research, it is clear that imposing mandatory voting does increase turnout since individuals are forced to show up at the polls, however as is clear from the Australian model already in place, extensive clarification is required on the duties of a voter should such a policy be implemented.

Even though a policy of compulsory voting sanctioned by Congress, approved by the sitting President and accepted by citizens of the United States is highly unlikely, it is important to engage in active discussion about the ways in which political efficacy can be brought into a fractured political system that is sinking into a deepening political legitimacy crisis with every passing election. The imposition of mandatory voting does have initial appearing to force institutions to take a more active role in governance, but it is unclear exactly how the perceived benefits of mandatory voting will pan out in a diverse and arduous political climate of the United States (Short and Keasey 43).

A fellow at the Brookings Institution, William Galston suggests conducting an experiment with mandatory voting in a dozen U.S states. With a call to action Galston asserts that “if we do nothing and allow a politics of passion to define the bounds of the electorate, as much as the last four decades, the prospect of a less polarized, more effective political system that enjoys the trust and confidence of the people is not bright.”


Works Cited

Archdeacon, Colin, Axel Gerdau, Mike Shum, Kc Mcginnis, and Jason Drakeford. “Why I’m Not Voting in the Midterms.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 Nov. 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2014. .

Brandeisky, Kara, Hanquing Chen, and Mike Tigas. “Everything That’s Happened Since Supreme Court Ruled on Voting Rights Act.”Journalism in Public Interest. Propublica, 4 Nov. 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2014. <>.

Dahl, R. (1998). On democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Goodin, Robert, and John Dryzek. “Rational Participation: The Politics Of Relative Power.” British Journal of Political Science 10.3 (1980): 273-90. Print.

“House Elections – 2014 Midterm Elections News & Results – NBC News.” NBC News. 15 Nov. 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2014. <;.

“International IDEA.” Compulsory Voting. IDEA. Web. 5 Dec. 2014. <>.

Jackman, Robert W. “Political Institutions and Voter Turnout in the Industrial Democracies.” The American Political Science Review 81.2 (1987): 405-24. Print.

Jaitman, Laura. “The Causal Effect of Compulsory Voting Laws on Turnout: Does Skill Matter?” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 92 (2013): 79-93. Print.

“Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters – Parliament of …” 13 Sept. 1997. Web. 5 May 2015. <;.

Krippner, Greta R. Capitalizing on Crisis: The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2011. Print.

Lever, Annabelle. “Compulsory Voting: A Critical Perspective.” British Journal of Political Science (2009): 57-74. Print.

Marcus, Ruth. “A Case for Compulsory Voting.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 4 Nov. 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2014. <;.

Montanaro, Domenico, Rachel Wellford, and Simone Pathe. “2014 Midterm Election Turnout Lowest in 70 Years.” PBS. PBS, 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2014. .

Perrin, Andrew J. Citizen Speak: The Democratic Imagination in American Life. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2006. Print.

Pringle, H. (2012). Compulsory Voting in Australia: What is Compulsory?. Australian Journal Of Political Science, 47(3), 427-440. doi:10.1080/10361146.2012.704001

Santhanam, Laura. “22 Countries Where Voting Is Mandatory.” PBS. PBS, 9 Nov. 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2014. <;.

Short, Helen, and Kevin Keasey. “Institutional Voting in the UK: Is Mandatory Voting the Answer?” Corporate Governance 5.1 (1997): 37-44. Print.

Stockemer, D., & Scruggs, L. (2012). Income inequality, development and electoral turnout – New evidence on a burgeoning debate. Electoral Studies, 31(4), 764-773.

“The Mind of the Undecided Voter.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2014. <;.

“Timeline: A History of the Voting Rights Act.” American Civil Liberties Union. Web. 9 Dec. 2014. <>.

William, Galston. “Telling Americans to Vote, or Else.” The Brookings Institution. The New York Times, 5 Nov. 2011. Web. 5 May 2015. <;.

Have an opinion? Share it

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: