Forcing Americans to Vote Turns Democracy Into a Farce
SACRAMENTO — A Washington state Senate committee last week passed legislation designed to bolster democratic engagement by requiring eligible Washington voters to not only register to vote but to turn in a ballot for every primary and general election. Nothing screams freedom and democracy better than using government compulsion, I suppose.
Senate Bill 5209’s sponsor, Sen. Sam Hunt (D-Olympia), assured Washington residents the legislation does not actually force them to vote. Per a Washington Standard report, the legislation would include this line on every ballot: “You may leave any portion or the entirety of this ballot blank. However, you are required by law to submit this ballot to your local county elections office by Election Day.” So you must turn in a ballot, but you’re free to leave it blank and you won’t get punished if you refuse, at least for now.
Hunt told the Standard that he had considered offering some sort of lottery that offered a prize to some lucky voter, but decided that amounted to paying people to vote. So instead of incentivizing ballot-casting, he decided to require it by law. This mandatory “duty to vote” bill reflects one of the latest progressive fads that ignores the underlying causes of voter complacency — and replaces it with their usual reliance on coercion.
Forcing People to Vote Isn’t Democratic
There are plenty of constitutional and practical arguments against this approach. It seems like the antithesis of democracy to require people to participate in elections and few things undermine democratic governance more than unenforceable laws that breed cynicism. Having a larger percentage of people vote — especially if the voters are uninformed about who or what they are voting for — doesn’t make for a better-functioning democracy; instead, it merely offers a veneer of legitimacy to current leaders.
If the percentage of people who vote in an election is the mark of civic engagement and democracy, then we should all look to the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for inspiration. In October 2002, Saddam received 100 percent of the vote from his grateful people — after a boisterous campaign that improved upon the vote tally when he first took his leadership to the ballot in 1995. In that year, he only received a measly 99.62 percent approval.
Most striking about Saddam’s “democracy” — at least until it was overthrown by U.S. forces six months later — was the large percentage of eligible voters who participated in elections. According to a 2002 report from the Guardian, the vice president of the Revolutionary Command Council said that “all 11,445,638 eligible voters cast ballots.” Such committed citizens.
North Korea is another model of democratic involvement. In that “People’s Republic,” everyone 17 years or older must show up at the polls and vote (none of this silly mail-in voting, either). As the BBC explained, voters receive a paper ballot with the name already filled in. North Koreans wait in line and then hand in their ballot paper. They make it so easy! Of course, virtually everyone voted in the Soviet Union — and it had nothing to do with free food at polling stations or fear of getting a visit from a party authority.
Excuse my obvious facetiousness, but the number of people who fill out or hand in ballots is just window dressing. An old friend of mine never voted because he believed that “it only encouraged them” — he was far more informed about politics than most people who diligently voted. It seems like a basic right “not” to cast a vote. I usually vote, even though only in the rarest instances has a single ballot ever changed anything.
Low Voter Turnout Is a Symptom
I think of the economic term “rational ignorance,” which applies to voting and refers to the fact that it can take much more time and energy than it’s worth to understand the voting records of a politician or to plow through detailed ballot initiatives given the low chance of one’s vote influencing the outcome.
Low voter turnout isn’t the problem, but the symptom. Requiring a ballot only allows the problem to fester. That Washington Standard article reports that Washington state has a relatively high voter turnout rate, but in the last election had “the lowest [rate] the state has seen in modern history, checking in under 37 percent.” Maybe Washington lawmakers ought to consider the underlying reasons rather than artificially gin up voting numbers.
Left-leaning groups have created a body of work supporting “civic duty voting,” filled with the usual grandiose and besides-the-point rhetoric. This is from a report of the Universal Voting Working Group convened by the Brookings Institution and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School:
Our intervention reflects a sense of alarm and moral urgency, but also a spirit of hope and patriotism. Members of our working group undertook this work to fight back against legal assaults on voting rights guarantees and the proliferation of new techniques and laws to keep citizens from casting ballots. We did so mindful of the public’s declining trust in our democratic institutions. We joined together to end a vicious cycle in which declining trust breeds citizen withdrawal which, in turn, only further increases the sense of distance between citizens and our governing institutions.
Beware whenever anyone proposes laws with a sense of moral urgency. I’d argue that requiring a ballot will only deepen that sense of distrust. It’s a rather large leap from the reasonable goals of removing impediments to voting to requiring it. California, for instance, has made it easy to vote, and yet voting rates are low, so perhaps that explains the newfound push for mandates.
“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” is how the late journalist H.L. Mencken cynically put it. Yet, we generally do our civic duty because, as Winston Churchill famously wrote, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Sorry, but we’re not going to improve that form of government by turning civic engagement into a mandated sham.