You Can't Force the Vote

by Robert R. Thompson

20 October 2004


I usually agree with Newsweek‘s Anna Quindlen. But not this week. She argues in her recent column, “Freedom’s Just Another Word”, (Newsweek 18 October, 2004), that the way to confront the problem of America’s notoriously low voter turnout is with a financial penalty. Ms. Quindlen suggests that we punish non-voters with “a fine of 50 bucks.” She borrows this idea from visiting Australian exchange students. The students were equally surprised at America’s terrible election turnout, and at the lack of a sanction for those who do not vote. Australian voting is compulsory, and, writes Ms. Quindlen, “The result is that Australia has one of the highest voter-turnout rates in the world, around 90 percent.”

It is true that low voter turnout in American elections is a serious problem. In the 2000 presidential election, around 50 percent of the voting age population voted. In 2002, only about 36 percent voted for members of Congress in the non-presidential election year. And this year, the US Election Project of George Mason University the source for these figures, reports that turnout in presidential primaries is down. It is especially disturbing that many Americans are not voting in elections, at any level. After all, America is the nation that prides itself on being the world’s democratic exemplar, and it boasts that it spills its blood and spends its treasure to bring elections to countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Although the American non-voting problem is easily diagnosed, finding a cure is more problematic. Ms. Quindlen’s suggested cure, financial punishment, is much worse than the disease. Forcing the vote seems an act of desperation, an admission that American democracy has failed. This draconian “solution” to the problem of low voter turnout ignores ways to reform the system (such as winning by popular vote); it not only fails to recognize that non-voting is not only caused by flaws in the system, but it is also due to people who decide that “optional” voting is just that, an option.

Why, then, is forcing people to vote a bad idea? Ms. Quindlen believes that since the government makes us do other things that we find restrictive, yet that do indeed protect us, like wearing seat belts, we should accept the government’s right to require our vote. Each year thousands of lives are saved by seatbelts. But Ms. Quindlen says, “forgoing the vote is an injury to the body politic, and that’s not a personal matter.” It may indeed be “an injury to the body politic”, and as a political science professor, I do believe all Americans should vote. However, in any democracy that believes in choice as a key democratic component, to vote or not to vote is a personal matter.

To force people to vote, and fine them if they don’t would, first of all, most likely engender more resentment and cynicism about politics. It would also have America emulating totalitarian countries that require political participation. I’ve discussed the problem of non-voting with my friends in the former communist dictatorships of Hungary and the Czech Republic. Before 1989, when those nations were under communist control, politics most definitely was not personal. As one of those friends noted, on those “meaningless” days called “election days”, everyone went to vote. You had to go vote. Your vote was not yours; it belonged to the entire political community. If one was not seen at the local polling place, “questions were asked”, because, in these communist nations the non-voter was viewed as “injuring the body politic”. And this injury was not permitted.

Besides de-personalizing the vote, forcing participation, and having America emulate the former “socialist democracies”, punishing non-voting raises other severe problems. A fine for not voting would uncomfortably resemble a reverse type of Poll Tax. The Poll Tax was a fee for voting, which some southern states imposed on their citizens, until the 24th Amendment to the Constitution made the tax unconstitutional. It had existed primarily to keep blacks from voting. My wife, who grew up in Virginia, remembers her father paying the poll tax. (It was $1.50 then, which today would be about $15 for each adult.)

I would argue that, intentionally or not, a non-voting fine would fall disproportionately upon minorities, the poor, and the young. These are all groups that vote less often, and would most likely suffer the most from any financial penalty imposed for not voting. These are the people who often feel disconnected from American society and politics. These are the people who are already suspicious and distrustful of government. Young people, students and non-students alike, are more mobile than their voting counterparts. They may also be supporting a family and working two, or even three jobs. I know students who take a full course load, work full time, and have family responsibilities. Some of them didn’t vote in 2000 due to the crush of their obligations. To punish those least able to afford “only” $50 (often, for example, the cost of a text book for a college student) for not dropping everything and heading to the polls is, to say the least, a harsh expedient for a democracy to take.

Also, one wonders how the fine would be enforced, and who would enforce it. Would poll workers become police? Would the states be in charge of monitoring compliance? Or, would counties and townships have to bear the burden of identifying and punishing non-voters? Who would collect the fine? Who would receive it? It seems certain that whether at the local, state, or federal level — or perhaps at all three — an enormous conglomeration of bureaucracies would be required to implement the non-voting fine. And, of course these new bureaucracies, staffed by more bureaucrats, would cost the taxpayers more money. So, it might be possible that you could be penalized for non-voting, by a government bureaucracy which ultimately is supported by your tax dollars. Talk about double jeopardy!

Further, the constitutional issues such a fine would raise are indeed thorny. Does the Constitution’s First Amendment of free speech protect your right not to vote? Is that right, in a way, an expression of a political opinion? One could certainly argue that that is often the case. I’m sure there are lots of lawyers out there who would just love to sink their teeth into this prospective constitutional issue. A government-sponsored non-voting fine would open the floodgates to a deluge of lawsuits; and, also to more taxpayer money going to more government lawyers defending the fine.

Consider a similar issue: campaign finance reform. This convoluted complex of legislative enactments, court rulings, and enforcement battles is very, very confusing, even to political science professors. But, to simplify it all quite a bit, as the situation now stands, money=speech. This means that the First Amendment protects the right of a self-financed candidate, for any office, to spend oodles of their own cash on their own campaign. I admit that I, along with many others, am not really happy with this First Amendment protection of profligate campaign spending, under the heading of “speech”. But, that’s the way it is. And, perhaps, Ms. Quindlen may not like it that the First Amendment, most likely, will be interpreted to equate non-voting with speech. But, that’s the way it will be.

I recently raised the suggestion of a fine for non-voting with my American Politics classes. The overwhelming response was, not surprisingly, that it was a terrible idea. Several students pointed out that a fine might make those who are thoughtful, informed non-voters angry and resentful. One young woman suggested that some determined non-voters might even be moved to acts of civil disobedience at polling places. “Imagine”, she said, “TV cameras showing, all over the world, pictures of non-voters protesting at polling places, demanding to be arrested because they refused to vote and refused to pay the fine”. Another student said that a potential fine would push to the polls the apathetic and uncaring, who would, once they were in the voting booth, “just randomly pull levers because they didn’t care. That isn’t democracy!”

So, what is to be done about the problem of low voter turn-out? A non-voting fine is neither a feasible, nor a fair, nor a constitutional solution. Ms. Quindlen notes that registration drives are a good thing, but that “just because many have registered does not guarantee that many will actually go to the polls on Nov. 2.” And she notes, “the United States has not had 60 percent of its voting-age citizens turn out since 1968.” Here is where I want to revisit the figures noted above, and suggest a much more appropriate solution to the problem of non-voting. When people register to vote, they do tend to turn out to vote, as well. If we examine the voter turnout figures for registered voters, not the entire voting age population, we find encouraging numbers. According to IDEA, Voter Turnout, although the 2000 number is still low at 51.2 percent of registered voters, that is still higher than the 49.3 percent of the voting age population. In recent presidential elections, 1992 and 1996, for example, 78.2 percent and 63.4 percent of registered voters turned out to vote.

MTV’s Rock the Vote has the right idea. Rock the Vote suggests, among other possibilities, an end to mandatory advanced registration. Don’t force people to vote, make voting easier. The Center For Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement notes that states with Election Day registration “have youth voter turnout rates that are 14 percentage points higher” than other states. In the 2000 presidential election, three of the five states with the highest rate of youth voting, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine, have Election Day registration. Then, to make showing up to vote easier, make Election a holiday for all non-essential businesses, much like Thanksgiving Day in November, or hold it on a weekend, when many people have more personal flexibility.

No one, of whatever age, in America should be forced to vote. People should want to vote. I believe that they do want to vote, whatever their age. I know that young people, and I think that this is true of other age groups as well, realize that the electoral system, and not their apathy is, mostly, the root of non-voting. Ms. Quindlen, you’re dead wrong. Americans are “really interested” in the political process. And punishing non-voting is a counter productive way to build interest among those who aren’t. From convoluted registration procedures, to the evident power of money in politics, to the fact that the Electoral College ultimately elects the president, not the popular vote, young non-voters, and non-voters of any age, have a strong case when they claim that they do care about the system, but that all too often, the system doesn’t seem to care about them.


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