When Staying Home on Election Day Is Against the Law

Imagine living in a country in which the two major parties had nominated a couple of candidates not to be trusted on the town council. Imagine deciding to stay home on Election Day.

But then imagine government officials showing up at your door, demanding that you accompany them to the polling place to vote for one of the candidates who you can’t stand even to listen speak. That is the world which some high-minded “civic activists” desire.

Every election can be expected to unleash ponderous commentaries bemoaning low voter turnout. Many Americans don’t register, let alone cast ballots. Why, oh why, won’t they get out and participate?

It is so unfair, we are told. The wealthy, elderly, and well-educated disproportionately participate, which “skews policymaking,” complained the Economist. Just think of all the government programs the underrepresented could vote for themselves if only they showed up on Election Day.

Of course, there is another way of looking at the process. Those most likely to follow politics, understand policy issues, watch the news, and know the candidates vote disproportionately. This might “skew” policy, but presumably in a very good way. Those choosing America’s leaders are actually more likely to know something.

For those determined to drive more people to the polls, the options seem few. Civic propaganda and celebrity endorsements don’t do much. Postal ballots actually may reinforce existing voting patterns. Election Day registration has limited effect. Treating Election Day as a holiday is a bust.

So, as one would expect, left-wing minds turn to coercion. Make people vote. Force them to act on their ignorance and prejudice. All that matters is pushing up turnout numbers.

Mandatory voting isn’t a new idea. Both Australia and Belgium penalize non-voters. Down Under you get hit with a roughly $14 fine if you don’t have a good excuse for staying home. (A bit like having a parent’s note for missing a day of school.)

Those in favor of a coerced ballot emphasize that you are free to do what you want once you are in the polling place, including choose no one. At least the authorities don’t look over your shoulder to ensure that you marking an officially approved selection.

Of course, there are worse impositions in life. Governments shoot people for resisting their authority, send people off to die in foolish foreign wars, invade people’s homes to punish them for conduct which threatens no one, confiscate property on the claim that it is drug-related, seize workers’ incomes to spread among political supporters and other influential interest groups, and much more. Requiring you to show up on Election Day appears, well, minor compared to so much else that government does!

However, as I wrote for Fee.org, “seemingly small exactions reinforce the presumption that the state determines and sanctions individual rights. A refusal to vote, thereby encouraging those who compete to dominate and control the lives of others, is a matter of basic conscience.”

Of course, one can argue that such staying home is irresponsible. Voting for a third party also registers dissent, but in most elections the numbers are barely noticed. This election might be different, but who knows? As for choosing the lesser of two evils, the likelihood that any one vote will make a difference is so small as to be a strong argument against wasting time trooping down to the polls.

Moreover, if those committed to liberty are unable to defeat the sort of big-spending, war-friendly candidates nominated of late, the best tactic might be withdrawing legitimacy from those who win. A steadily increasing share of the population abstaining from a process which yields choices between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee might spark a serious conversation about the state of American democracy.

Ultimately, the issue of voting comes down to conscience. Simply saying no and refusing to cast a ballot is a powerful form of dissent. A decision not to vote deserves the same respect as one to participate.