Commentary

Mandatory Voting Guarantees Ignorant Votes

President Obama has suggested that compulsory voting could be a good idea. “Other countries have mandatory voting,” said the president, Australia being the most prominent example. “It would be transformative if everybody voted — that would counteract money more than anything,” he continued.

The president is wrong. Compulsory voting is not just unwise, it is unconstitutional.

The First Amendment protects not just the right to speak, but the right to refrain from speaking. In 1943, the Supreme Court held that Jehovah’s Witness students couldn’t be forced to salute the flag or say the pledge of allegiance. Other cases have upheld the right to be free from forced speech in the context of compulsory union dues spent on political speech.

So, is not voting a form of speech? Not voting can certainly communicate a variety of messages, such as dissatisfaction, being fed-up with the two-party system or even being an anarchist. True, it is a crude method of communicating those messages, but it is no more crude than voting. A vote for a candidate could either indicate a begrudging acceptance or a whole-hearted endorsement. It could also just communicate that you hate the other guy (or girl).

Compulsory voting is not just unwise, it is unconstitutional.

The First Amendment covers the right not to vote. Moreover, Congress lacks constitutional authority to pass a law mandating voting, particularly in presidential elections. Article II of the Constitution gives Congress limited powers over presidential elections. State legislators have the power to choose how electors will be selected to the Electoral College, and there’s actually nothing in the Constitution mandating states to give citizens the right to vote for electors. Congress only has power to determine “the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes.”

Even if it were possible amend the Constitution to allow for compulsory voting, it would still be unwise.

Many people don’t vote because they don’t care enough or know enough to get involved, and there is no compelling evidence that mandatory voting increases voter knowledge. Simply put, people who vote tend to know more about politics than those who don’t. It is worth asking why we would want low information citizens voting in the first place. Just so they’re “involved” even if they’re trudging to the polls to avoid a fine?

American voter ignorance has become a familiar fact. In one Washington Post poll, only 36% could name the three branches of government. In another, 29% couldn’t identify the current vice president. Should they be forced to vote? On the contrary, there is a very good argument that those with extremely low information have a moral obligation not to vote. Why should the rest of us have to suffer the possible consequences of their ignorance?

Moreover, in the American electoral system, not voting conveys valuable information. Every presidential election is about “getting out the base” — that is, getting core party members excited enough about a candidate to go out and vote. If turnout is low, then the party knows that, next time, they better run a candidate who excites rather than bores the base.

In Australia, where they have mandatory voting and a preference voting system - voters rank candidates in order of preference — they have a consistent problem of the “donkey vote.” A small percentage of voters merely list the candidates in the order they are printed on the ballot. It is a small amount, but enough to turn a close election. Donkey votes might happen because of apathy or they could be protest votes, but in1983 the Australian system had to be reformed to reduce the impact of donkey votes.

Ultimately, compulsory voting does not solve the problem that advocates hope it will solve: low voter engagement and knowledge. Why? Because there is simply not enough hinging on a single vote for it to be worth it for most voters to be engaged. Statistically speaking, one vote in a national election will never impact the outcome, and voters react to those incentives accordingly.

Ask yourself this question: would it make more sense to spend two years researching politics to cast a “fully informed” vote or would it make more sense to spend that time researching your next car purchase? And remember that your “fully informed” vote will count as much as a person who chooses his candidate by throwing a dart at board with all the candidates’ pictures.

Instead, just let the dart throwers stay home.

Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.