Why Compulsory Voting Should Be Implemented in America

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Published: Dec 12, 2018

Words: 4855|Pages: 11|25 min read

Published: Dec 12, 2018

In this paper, I will make an argument for the implementation of compulsory voting (compulsory attendance) in the United States. I will ground this argument in the claim that compulsory voting would best address the problem of low and unequal voter turnout levels, making governance more representative, thus more democratic. To provide context to this claim, I confirm that democracy, first and foremost, means ‘rule by the people.’Further, that based on the evolution of democracy throughout its history, voting for representatives has become the fairest tool through which the ‘people’ have the opportunity to ‘rule.’ The problem that I address however, arises when people fail to exercise their formal right to vote, which causes a democratic illegitimacy stemming from a lack of efficacy caused by the increasing complexity of democracy, distancing the general population from political decisions. The United States, therefore, is a semi-democratic, semi-representative system of government in which decision making is largely held in the hands of the few, while a majority of Americans are, for the most part, fragmented from participation in politics (not only in voting, but in all aspects of participation). I will argue that this is a problem for democracy in the United States, and that compulsory voting is the most effective method of increasing participation; and therefore should be implemented.

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My argument for compulsory voting then, depends heavily on the value of my conception of democracy itself, the importance that participation has for the legitimacy of democracy, and an explanation of why voter turnout is the preeminent method to gauge participation within the context of contemporary democracy. Ultimately, it must be accepted that this concept of democracy best protects against tyranny, best provides liberty and freedom, and best develops and cultivates individuals. Also, the level of political participation of the general electorate must be shown to be the most significant factor in determining the legitimacy of democracy. Finally, it must be shown that voting is the most essential criteria through which political participation of the electorate can be measured. If these claims can be defended, my case case for compulsory voting is straightforward.

I will make the argument for compulsory voting by first addressing the strongest critiques against these three central claims. First, that there are other accepted notions of democracy that do not depend as much on the active participation of the electorate for legitimacy. Secondly, that compulsory voting would interfere with our liberal ideals of freedom of choice and voluntary participation, violating our ‘right not to vote,’ which is just as valuable as voting itself. Lastly, that compulsion would not actually solve the underlying causes of illegitimacy, which are caused by structural limitations of modern democracy, unrelated to voter turnout. In response to the first critique, I will expand on my conception of democracy, and ground its legitimacy in the historical framework on which the United States was founded. Second, I will argue that compulsory voting does not in fact impede on our right not to vote, and actually increases our liberty on the basis of self-determination, autonomy, and equal liberty, appealing to hybrid republican/liberal framework on which the United States was founded (Lacroix; Schafer). As for the last critique, I will ground my response in the assertion that higher voter turnout would not create perfect democratic legitimacy, but that it would better address factors such as responsiveness, efficacy, and trust in government. I will close by arguing that compulsory voting would provide the best alternative for a return to democracy, putting power back into the hands of the people.

The first response to my argument for compulsory voting would be a critique of the conception of democracy in which I have grounded my argument. Essentially, opponents would argue that there are other accepted conceptions of contemporary democracy which do not place such an emphasis on political participation of the electorate. For example, some thinkers, such as Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter, hold that the competitive elitist conception of democracy might be necessary to deal with the “complexities, problems, and decisions of modern politics” (Held 139). Within this conception, legitimacy rests in the expertise of the political elites, who are able to make the best public decisions. According to Schumpeter, compulsory voting would equate to a “quagmire of infighting among factions and wholly ineffective in settling pressing collective issues” (Held 141). This argument relies on the claim that ignorance pervades the minds of the average voter while participating in politics. This is because, according to Schumpeter, in many public affairs, the general public is completely uninvolved, meaning that they have no true responsibility regarding these affairs. This lack of general knowledge of public affairs is a problem that cannot be solved by education (Held 144). In essence, this argument follows that voting is important to give the impression of accountability, for the people to believe they are being represented. Also, voting should be the only avenue for which the general electorate has the opportunity to participate in politics.

Essentially, this train of thought follows that if participation were to be universal, politics would become rule by the masses who are ill-informed and unwise (Held 231). However, I would argue that this kind of argument is simply undemocratic by any conception of the term. It seems that Weber is simply skeptical of democracy in the first place; fearing of equal participation for all. In this sense, he is not even subscribing to the fundamental foundation of all democratic thought, which is at least some form of accountability and protection of individuals. As Held writes, “if it were merely a choice between tyranny and competitive elitism…the latter would of course be desirable…but the rich tradition of democratic thought indicates that these are far from the only avenues open” (157). Thus, I argue that this elitist democracy is simply an illegitimate conception of democracy, meaning any argument against compulsion grounded in its conception is unfounded.

Furthermore, if voting would not alter outcomes within competitive elitism, then it would seem to be appropriate that nearly everyone should vote in order to give the impression of popular sovereignty. In other words, even in the most minimal form of democracy argued by Schumpeter, compulsory voting still remains a plausible possibility. The justification for compulsory voting lies in the claim that democracy means ‘rule by the people.’ Still, it is important to pay heed to all counter claims, and even these arguments introduce interesting questions about the meaning of democracy. Basically, there is a problem of the definition of democracy as either civic virtue through self-fulfillment (republicanism/liberalism), or democracy solely as a means to pursue our self-chosen ends (elitism) (Held 231). However, I argue that compulsory voting does not violate either of these principles of democracy. Rather, high voter turnout would be a means that would increase both the liberty of collective or individual self-determination, and the liberty of pursuing our self-chosen ends. This is because, contrary to an elitist framework, political participation is the method through which individuals make decisions based on their own preferences. This is the fundamental reason participation gives governments legitimacy.

Still, less extreme conceptions of democracy can hold that self-government is the basis for legitimacy, but reject the idea that voting is the primary tool through which legitimacy is measured. Instead these alternate conceptions of democracy hold that there are more vital determinants of legitimacy other than voting. For one example, drawing on classic pluralism, protective democracy, and developmental democracy, Lever writes “As a general matter, democracies provide a variety of arenas and ways in which we can act collectively as citizens, and develop our abilities to de?ne and pursue collective, as well as personal, interests… [and that] voting is, at best, only one form of [this] democratic political participation” (908-909; Held 78, 92, 173). In addition to this notion of collective action, another concept of democracy, legal democracy, holds that apart from participation, the constitution, rule of law, and the free-market are the main determinants of legitimacy (Held 207).

This argument is convincing, as it accepts accountability and protection of citizens’ interests (which I have stressed) as fundamental to the legitimacy of governance, while rejecting the claim that voting is the most telling factor regarding accountability and protection. However, I argue that compulsory voting would not interfere with these conceptions, as the founding of the United States was grounded in both classical liberal and republican frameworks (quote the federalist papers). Thus, on the basis of liberal thought, democracy in the United States means the “pursuit of happiness” through protection from the government. And on the other hand, on the basis of republican thought, democracy means “self-determination for the common good” (Held 48). The reason that compulsory voting is highly contested in modern America however, is that the liberal framework has become salient, while the republican framework has become largely forgotten. This has created the mindset that the government is legitimized, not by participation, but by legal and structural institutions such as the U.S. Constitution, rule of law, and the operation of the free-market (Held 207). Through these institutions, as long as citizens are protected from the government, as well as each other, they will be able to pursue interests, “free from risks of violence, unacceptable social behavior and unwanted political interference” (Held 78). This mindset reduces the incentive for political participation, which, according to the founding of the United States is equally as important for legitimacy as structural institutions. In illustrating this point, Engelen writes that “without popular sovereignty – guaranteed by a democracy in which people participate in the decisions that will bind them – individual rights and liberties remain purely formal and empty” (221). Thus, this structural concept of legitimacy creates what I have referred to as a democratic deficiency, which is caused by the ineffectiveness for structural institutions to make representatives accountable and responsive to the people as a whole.

Nevertheless, relating again to Lever, even if we accept that the United States was founded on both liberal and republican frameworks, then we are still left with a question. Why is voting the most significant factor in measuring legitimacy within contemporary democracy? In other words, why is it that voting takes preference over “other ways of defining and pursuing collective interests,” such as “in business, in culture, sport and the arts, in education, healthcare, public administration, law, [or] the military” (Lever 909). Essentially, Lever is arguing that even though “Duly elected representatives are entitled to pass laws on our behalf, to undo those that have been made, to appoint people to act for us, and to enforce collectively binding decisions,” it does not follow that these tasks are more important “than other forms of collective choice and action, be they administrative, judicial, executive or benevolent” (909-910).

I argue that the main issue with Lever’s claim is that she fails to address the reason for representation itself. In the United States, the most telling factor for legitimacy lies in the fact that the citizens choose their elected officials. To illustrate this point; if every citizen chose to abstain from choosing their elected officials, there would be no accountability or need for responsiveness between the officials and the electorate, making way for the possibility for tyranny. Thus, in this case, individuals might not even have the opportunities to pursue individual or collective interests in the first place, as the opportunities might no longer exist. Moreover, because legitimacy first and foremost lies in representation, voting also takes preference over “other forms of collective action, be they administrative, judicial, executive or benevolent,” because if no one voted, these other forms would have no accountability or transparency to the representatives, opening the door for arbitrary governmental control.

The second overarching response to my argument for compulsory voting is made largely within a liberal framework of thought. One of these arguments follows that it is not clear whether there is a moral duty to vote, and that abstention needs to be protected, as it is a voluntary political choice in itself. For example, Lever writes that “People’s interests in non-participation are intimately tied to the justi?cation of democratic rights of choice, expression and association” (self-government). “They are, therefore, not trivial, as proponents of compulsion assume, but have a comparable weight and justi?cation to people’s interests in political participation itself” (904). In addition to this, Lever also argues that “voluntary political participation is a distinctive human good, and that democracies are justi?ed in part by their ability to realize that good, and to make it available to most, nearly all, of their populations” (910). This argument is intriguing and troubling, as I have thus far based my argument partly on the value of self-government.

However, I argue that this value of self-government is secondary to the value of accountability. The justification for democracy lies primarily in what Held refers to as “rightful authority,” (2). For that reason, other values (self-determination, the satisfaction of wants, and social utility) that stem from democracy are secondary. Therefore, I argue that compulsory voting and the trade-offs that would come with it, are justified in order to make the government as legitimate as possible. Moreover, it is a false premise to assume that a majority of non-voters choose to abstain from politics because they “value self-government” (Lever 910). Instead, I argue that for the most part, non-voters abstain from politics due the increasing complexity of governance, which results in apathy, lack of efficacy, and low levels of trust in government. Also, without compulsory voting, increasingly lower levels of participation remain a possibility, further illegitimating the government. And as previously mentioned, if this were to happen, citizens would have less opportunities “to pursue collective, as well as personal, interests” (Lever 909). Thus, high levels of political participation are necessary to opportunities for self-government and self-determination. Compulsory voting would increase levels of political participation. Therefore, contrary to Lever’s claim, compulsory voting would increase, rather than decrease our opportunities for self-government.

Similarly, another argument within the liberal framework is that compulsion is not compatible with liberty as non-interference, or negative liberty, which holds precedence over other democratic ideals such as participation and equality. This argument is made on the basis of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle; “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm from others” (68). The argument against compulsory voting, therefore, follows that forcing people to show up to the polls on election day is an infringement of personal liberty because it fails to meet the harm principle. When citizens choose to abstain from voting, they are simply making a personal choice, not causing any harm to others. Thus follows that citizens ought not to be compelled to vote.

However, this argument relies on too simple of a reading of Mill’s words. Interestingly, Mill also writes that when we are don’t participate, it is harder to discover our needs and wants, arrive at judgments, and to develop mental excellence. Accordingly, for Mill, active participation is the best mechanism to develop our own human development, and to create “imaginative solutions and successful strategies” (Held 82). More importantly, Mill also writes that the “rights and interests of every person are only secure from being disregarded when the person interested is himself able, and habitually disposed, to stand up for them” (Mill 224). In this sense, it seems that Mill places an inherent value in political participation. When more and more people don’t vote, it lowers the level and value of rights of participation, which would in turn lower the liberty and freedom for all. Thus, compulsory voting actually fits in with the liberal paradigm (Lacroix). It might actually even fit better with the liberal paradigm than voluntary voting.

As Lacroix has argued however, for the case of compulsion, it is not sufficient to claim that political participation fits in with the liberal framework. Instead, “it is also essential to establish that the duty to vote is not a breach of liberal rights” (Lacroix 192). In establishing that compulsion would not interfere with individual rights, Lacroix relies on “notions of liberty as autonomy and of equal liberty” (192). As far as autonomy goes, Lacroix writes that compulsory voting (simply meaning compulsory attendance) does not confine individual conscience or choice, as citizens would still have the opportunity to cast a blank vote. As for liberty of autonomy, Lacroix means that liberty simply means respect of laws that have been made. Further, that because compulsory voting would not in fact restrain individual conscience, it would not violate the “liberal distinction n between the public sphere and the private sphere, which, according to Judith Shklar is neither ‘permanent’ nor ‘unalterable’ as ‘the important point for liberalism is not so much where the line is drawn, as it be drawn, and that it must under no circumstance be ignored or forgotten” (Lacroix 193). In relying on the principle of equal liberty, Lacroix cites studies that find that low electoral turnout actually equates to unequal turnout, i.e. higher educated, higher income groups of people are more likely to vote, and vice versa. For Lacroix, this phenomenon violates the liberal principle of equal liberty, which “aim[s] at guaranteeing liberty for all and creating the necessary conditions for the full exercise of individual liberty” without infringing on individual rights (194). Therefore, as has been previously noted throughout my argument, compulsory voting can be justified within the liberal framework, on the grounds that it best prevents arbitrary government control and domination by making elections as equal and representative as possible (195).

Opponents that argue within the liberal framework also question why we should not institute alternative, less intrusive polices to attempt to solve the problem of low turnout. With this argument, opponents admit that low turnout is a problem, and that political participation is a positive ideal. However, they argue that compulsory voting is still in some degree violates individual liberty and the choice not to vote. Instead of compulsory voting, less extreme alternatives should be instituted such as same day registration, weekend voting, or education reform.

Again, liberals are overstating the intrusiveness of compulsory voting. For instance, if we are to write off compulsory voting on the breach of individual liberty, then we would be forced to write of jury duty and paying taxes, civic duties that are widely accepted and followed. Moreover, as Lacroix illustrated, compulsory voting merely means compulsory attendance to the polls on election days, meaning that it does not undermine individual conscience. Additionally, compulsory voting is simply the most effective alternative to increase turnout. Simply, if we admit that low turnout as a genuine concern, then it would be a mistake to rule out compulsory voting.

The last main argument against compulsory voting is that it wouldn’t solve the underlying causes of democratic deficiency and elitist governance. Instead of instituting compulsory voting, more fundamental change to the system itself is needed to solve the problems of accountability and legitimacy caused by low levels of participation and civic engagement. So essentially, while this argument agrees with proponents of compulsory voting that low levels of participation are a problem, it disagrees about the solution to the problem.

An example of this train of thought comes from Mark Bevir. In his book, “Democratic Governance,” Bevir scrutinizes the changing nature of the modern state, finding that these changes have caused concerns of accountability and legitimacy for democracy. This, according to Bevir, is due to the attempt to create governance that combines representative democracy with a reliance on “expertise based on modernist social science” (270). For Bevir, this has posed a problem for democracy because this ‘expertise’ “is a fallacy…and cannot deliver on its promises” (270). Essentially, these new approaches to governance that rely on expertise are not compatible with the fundamental ideals of democracy. Bevir argues that, within the modern state, we must not continue to rely on representative democracy to solve the issues of accountability and legitimacy. Instead, new informal pluralist and participatory democracy built around diverse openings and support for citizens to develop voice, enter dialogues, and rule themselves” (Bevir 273). Thus, Bevir would argue that compulsory voting would not solve the underlying problems that democracy faces in the modern era.

I agree with Bevir in that low voter is due to a lack of political efficacy caused by a lack of valuable civic education, the growth of polarized party politics, and the rise of an unaccountable bureaucracy. [9] However, I argue that Bevir’s solution to the democratic deficiency is simply not a practical possibility within the current system of democracy in the United States. While I do acknowledge that other forms of political participation besides voting have value, it is important to recall the significance I have placed on voting as the fairest, most telling factor for democratic legitimacy. In the words of Bevir, “formal representative democracy certainly embodies an equality that I would be reluctant to dismiss: an election can allow each citizen to have exactly one vote” (270). Thus, as I have argued, equality is the reason that the formal institution of voting is so important for legitimacy. So, if voting levels are not at a suitable level, then there is a concern for legitimacy, which is why I argue that compulsory voting can be justified. Additionally, compulsory voting could actually spur a political interest in the electorate, causing a growth in civic engagement, creating avenues for citizens to “develop voice, enter dialogues, and rule themselves” (Bevir 273). This would happen because if compulsory voting were implemented, schools would feel a greater need to educate future citizens about the structure and practice of government, the value of democracy, and of the basics of the political issues. This education would then spur more interest and efficacy in the electorate as people would realize the importance of political participation.

Similarly, a related argument is that compulsory voting would in fact increase the uneducated vote, or the random vote, which would probably not have an effect on legitimizing outcomes, or could even lead to “unjust outcomes” (Brennan). Moreover, some people might simply be meant to vote and participate, while others may better suit themselves and society by staying at home and watching from the sidelines. While yes, while it is important for people to be represented, it doesn’t seem like it would add value to the democratic process if the new voters were not informed on the issues in the first place. Additionally, compulsion would take significance away from the voluntary act of voting. For instance, in regards to voluntary participation, Rawls writes that “the effect of self-government where equal political rights have their fair value is to enhance the self-esteem and the sense of political competence of the average citizen… this education to public spirit is necessary if citizens are to acquire an af?rmative sense of political duty and obligation, that is, one that goes beyond the mere willingness to submit to law and government” (Rawls 234). In other words, the responsibility of self-government and political obligations fall on individuals themselves, and lose their weight if there is no willingness by the individual to participate in the first place.

As far as the fear of incompetence goes, I argue that compulsory voting could actually spark interest and a need to be informed on the issues, thus creating a willingness to participate. This is because a main reason some citizens choose not to vote is because they feel that they are not informed on the complexities of issues and therefore cannot come to valuable conclusions or decisions. It is simply a false premise to assume that all or even most nonvoters are not voting out of an unwillingness to “participate in the governance of society” (Lever). Additionally, a lack of political and civic participation actually creates an uninformed citizen. In this sense, the problem of low turnout is cyclical in nature. An uninformed citizen is less likely to vote, while a lack of participation causes an uninformed citizen. Because of this, I argue that compulsory voting is the most effective means of both increasing participation and competence of the electorate. In principle, if everyone was required to show up to the polls, the uninformed/uninterested people would be incentivized to learn about the candidates and issues. Overall, compulsion would stimulate political interest in society, thus renewing and reinvigorating the political process within the electorate (similar to what Mill wrote with regards to participation).

Moreover, if enfranchisement can be widened without drastically increasing the amount of uninformed votes, wouldn’t that benefit everyone? Voting and participating is not merely about promoting one’s own self-interest; it is about actively taking part in the people’s government. The point is that democratic politics is necessarily group based and public in nature. When we participate in the political process, we are deliberating and learning with others. However, when we do not participate, we are missing out on the value of democratic participation. Either we lack faith in the system, we feel that we are not informed enough to make a decision, we are simply apathetic about the outcomes, or we are consciously deciding not to vote. Regardless of the reasons, when we abstain from voting, we are missing out on the political process, which is what makes democracy valuable in the first place; not only for us individually, but for the political community as a whole. If we had compulsory voting, this group of uneducated/uninterested people would become smaller and smaller. The result would be a deeper appreciation of civic life and public discourse; things that would both enrich our lives and increase our freedom. This seems to point to a justification for compulsory voting.

In response to the three main critiques, I have argued that compulsory voting would be suitable to the concept of democracy in the United States, that it would not violate individual liberty, and that it would transform citizenship and participation into a way of life instead of a personal choice or hobby. With its implementation, we would realize a vitalized civil society, through which citizens can deliberate and discuss issues, in order to defend and refine our own preferences. Still, it is important to note that this resurgence in civil society must be accomplished in order to legitimize compulsory voting, due to the fact that the grounds for making the case for compulsory voting rely heavily on its legitimizing impact on democracy. That is to say, higher voting turnout legitimizes democracy by not only making it more representative and accountable, but also by increasing political participation and civic engagement in ways that bring the people closer to decision making by “develop[ing] voice and enter[ing] dialogues” (Bevir 273).

At first sight, compulsory voting seems to severely break the widely held liberal thought that if you aren’t harming anyone, you should not be coerced to do anything. However, as America was founded on both liberal and republican notions of liberty, this is a narrow definition. For example, Americans have come to accept other civic duties such as paying taxes and jury duty. The reason that these duties are accepted is because they have been in place for so long, in addition to the fact that they were instituted based on the ideals of civic duty and equal liberty. If one critiques these using the same strict liberal arguments based on individual liberty, they would falter. This would be unreasonable however, because Americans accept that in the United States, individuals do in fact have some duties and obligations to themselves and to fellow citizens; it is fundamental to the healthy functioning of democratic governance. In this way, compulsory voting seems to be a minor duty when placed against other obligations citizens have within democratic systems of governance. Democracy is a system in which we all have equal rights, respect of fellow man, and acceptance of differing viewpoints. However, first and foremost, democracy is based on a system of popular sovereignty because it most accurately meets the ideal of political equality. It seems that based on this fundamental model of popular sovereignty, participation plays an important, if not the most important role.

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However, as I have argued, with modernization and the decreased levels of voter turnout, The United States government is a system which is barely democratic; it is more of an elitist system of governance in which those at the top rule through bureaucratization (Held 140). This is a major concern, due to the fact that voter turnout is fundamental to the legitimacy of any democratic governing body. Therefore, because compulsory voting would be the best means to increase participation to a suitable level, it is justified. It would, contrary to Lever’s claim, increase our liberty through self-governance and autonomy (Held 79; Lacroix). More importantly, compulsory voting would bring a fundamental change to the way citizens perceive democratic governance; it would bring back public trust in civic engagement. Simply, compulsory voting would create a more equal system which would better reflect the true definition of democracy.

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Why Compulsory Voting Should Be Implemented in America. (2018, December 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from
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