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President Barack Obama, who has bemoaned low voter turnout as a contributing factor to Washington’s dysfunction, on Wednesday floated a possible solution to get more people to the polls: make a law requiring Americans to vote.
“In Australia, and some other countries, there’s mandatory voting. It would be transformative if everybody voted,” the president told the City Club of Cleveland. “That would counteract money more than anything.”
The Constitutionality of enacting such a measure, along with the political feasability of it, would be in doubt if ever there was an attempt to institue it. But that aside, would requiring Americans by law to vote help cure the influence of outside money or the gridlock that has plagued Washington?
Rob Richie, the executive director of the non-partisan election reform advocacy group “FairVote,” said mandatory voting would certainly increase voter participation, but it is unlikely to be as transformative as the president suggested.
“There is no one substitute for the fundamental issues of what is keeping people from the polls,” Richie said.
For one, there is no conceivable way to make sure people actually vote while maintaining the sanctity of the ballot box. “You can be forced to show up, but you can do what you want when you get there,” Richie said.
And, Richie says, simply increasing the number of people who vote does not mean results will be different. Most Congressional districts are gerrymandered so that House seats would be largely unaffected by turnout numbers. And Senate control and president elections would still come to the same ten or so swing states they always have, Richie said.
A change to mandatory voting would be comparable to the changes seen when polls report registered voters versus likely voters, Richie added. Those changes have been impactful some election years. Young and nonwhite voters, a key Obama constituency in both his elections, are statistically less likely to vote in midterm elections. If they had been motivated by a fine to vote in 2014, the damage may not have been as bad for Democrats.
If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country
Less than 37 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2014 midterm elections, according to the United States Election Project. Political dysfunction is “a consequence of everybody staying home and acting cynical,” Obama said in a recent interview with Vice News.
“If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country, because the people who tend not to vote are young; they're lower income; they're skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups,” the president said Wednesday.
More than 20 countries around the globe have some form of mandatory voting. And some political scholars say there are real advantages to the system. Thomas Mann of the liberal Brookings Institute said required voting is not a “silver bullet” to fix American governance, but there are some real benefits, including a greater focus on educating younger voters and elected officials who care more about voters outside their political base.
It could also change the way campaigns operate. “The case for it is that so much of the resources of campaigns are meant to mobilize and demobilize voters, that this would be a way to shift the focus,” Mann said.
But Sarah John, a research fellow at FairVote who lived in Australia until age 28, said Australian politicians “have to convince the people who don’t care” to vote for them. That does not always mean substantive policy discussions.
“I wouldn’t say I prefer one system over another,” John said. “I just enjoyed not having to worry about being fined for not voting.”