Americans don't vote.
Not all of us, of course. Tens of millions of us do vote. But far too many of us don't.
In the 2012 presidential election, only about 57.5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. The 2014 midterm election had historically low turnouts: Only 36.4 percent of the electorate voted. That means nearly two-thirds of us didn't bother to go to the polls.
Efforts to tweak the election process to increase turnout have largely been ineffectual. Early voting doesn't actually increase turnout. Nor does moving elections to weekends. Making registration easier hasn't had much of an effect either.
There is one reform that would certainly increase turnout, though: compulsory voting. If you required people to vote, voting rates would increase substantially. In Australia, all eligible citizens are required to vote; if they don't they are fined $20. Not much of a penalty — but effective enough that voting rates in Australia are in the neighborhood of 80 percent.
There's not much popular or political enthusiasm for compulsory voting in the U.S. People don't like the idea of having another civic obligation, even one enforced only with a nominal fine. And there are many who believe, like The Week's Damon Linker, that "if you can't be bothered to vote, you probably aren't paying attention; and if you aren't paying attention, we'll probably all be better off if you keep not bothering."
It's true that people who don't vote are disengaged — but that's not quite the same as saying that they aren't paying attention. It may simply be that they don't think their votes matter.
"People are more likely to vote when they feel efficacious," says Yanna Krupnikov, a political science professor at Stony Brook University. "When people believe that their political preferences do not matter at all, they are less likely to turn out and vote."
This creates something of a catch-22. The voters who are least well served by the system — such as the poor or African-Americans or Hispanics — feel that their votes don't matter, and therefore are less inclined to vote. This is not necessarily because they aren't paying attention. It's often because they are paying attention, and recognize that the political system does not care about them. But by not voting, they ensure that the system is even less responsive. This in turn alienates them further — and so on.
Non-voters aren't foolish or ignorant. They are making reasonable, even informed choices about the effort of voting versus the power of their votes. The individual reality of disempowerment creates rational individual choices. And those rational choices, unfortunately, contribute to further collective disempowerment.
Compulsory voting would interrupt this cycle. Suddenly, voting would be less costly than not voting, and as a result, many more people would go to the polls. And those new voters would very likely have a strong effect on public policy. Anthony Fowler, a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, told me that in his research into Australia's voting patterns, "compulsory voting increased the average vote share of the labor party by about 9 percentage points in state assembly elections." Further, he said, "compulsory voting appeared to significantly increase pension spending, a major policy goal of the working class."
There's evidence from the U.S., too. Democrats are more successful in presidential election years than in off-year elections. In larger turnout years, more young people and more people of color vote, which tends to swing elections toward politicians who address the concerns of those groups. As Fowler told me, "Voters are typically very different from non-voters or marginal voting populations, so efforts to expand the voting population can have big effects."
Rather than forcing disengaged and ignorant people to vote, compulsory voting is likely to create a more engaged, more knowledgeable electorate. "People do pay more attention to politics when they know for certain that they are committed to voting," Krupnikov told me.
There's every reason to believe that compulsory voting will make many voters feel, correctly, that their votes matter more.
Is it moral to compel people to vote — even with a punishment as light as a $20 fine? Fowler argues that it is. "This is a classic collective action problem, not unlike paying taxes or cleanly disposing of your garbage," Fowler told me. "How do we normally resolve collective action problems like paying taxes? We don't have go-pay-your-taxes drives, and we don't criticize tax evaders for being stupid or failing to do their civic duty. We compel (or strongly incentivize) people to pay their taxes through legal means."
Democracy is stronger and more just when the political system is accountable to the public. Compulsory voting would include more people in the process; like women's suffrage and black suffrage, it would push the United States a little closer to honoring its ideals.
A bigger electorate would, of course hurt Republicans, which is why they oppose it. Nor have the Democrats taken up the issue. So yes, there's no clear political path to adoption. But compulsory voting is worth talking about, if only to highlight the number of people in the United States whose political voices are silent because we've decided its not important to hear them.