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The 2020 election (finally) ended this month, with voters handing Joe Biden the presidency and breaking a huge record in the process: the highest turnout in a US election since 1908.
Over 22 million more Americans voted in 2020 than in 2016, following massive get-out-the-vote campaigns by both sides, expanded early and absentee voting due to the coronavirus pandemic, a nonstop news cycle, and a year that served as a political awakening for many voters.
That historic turnout? Still just about two-thirds of eligible voters.
Voter turnout has never been America’s strong suit. The US, which talks a big game about the democratic process, typically manages to have just over half of its eligible voters participating in presidential elections. In midterm elections and local races, turnout tends to be even lower.
As Americans reflect on the 2020 election, many are now considering ways to reform the voting process: Should the Electoral College still exist? Should Election Day be a federal holiday? What can we do to stamp out voter suppression that accounts, in part, for low participation rates?
But fewer Americans are asking a question that has already been answered by more than 20 countries around the world, including Australia, Belgium, and Brazil: What if we were required to turn up at the polls?
A group of more than 20 election scholars and voting rights advocates have this year been urging Americans to think about the benefits of adopting compulsory voting. The group, led by the Brookings Institution and Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, put out a report in July making the case for what they more palatably refer to as “universal civic duty voting.” Their hope is that as more Americans consider ways the voting system may more accurately reflect the country’s makeup, compulsory voting — and all the reforms that would likely come with it — may start to look attractive.
“Compulsory voting says that every person’s vote matters, every person’s perspective matters, and that everyone has a right to representation in a representative form of government,” said Janai S. Nelson, the associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a coauthor of the report.
Advocates for compulsory voting know they have a long way to go before it could ever become a national reality, but they’re hoping it could be tried out on a smaller scale first. Now that the election is over, they’re speaking with local elected officials, state legislatures, and civil rights groups to see who might be willing to be the country’s compulsory voting guinea pig. They’re also planning to pen a model bill to show how it could work in practice nationwide.
“The hope is not that the United States of America tomorrow morning is going to adopt this,” said E.J. Dionne, a Georgetown University professor of government, Washington Post columnist, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “but we do hope that cities, counties, states would take a look at this and perhaps adopt it experimentally, the way, say, Maine has adopted instant runoffs.”
Most advocates for compulsory voting tend to look to Australia, where voting has been mandatory since 1924. Because every Australian over 18 must participate, the voting process is made quite easy; voter registration can be completed online, Election Day is on a Saturday, and voters can vote at whatever polling site in their state or territory they choose. Not to mention, voting is a pretty fun community experience. After casting their vote, many Australians will purchase a celebratory sausage wrapped in bread, affectionately known as a “democracy sausage,” or a baked good from a nearby vendor who is usually fundraising for a local school.
Australia’s system (democracy sausages included, one would hope) may be a strong model for what compulsory voting could look like in the US, according to former Connecticut secretary of state Miles Rapoport, now a senior practice fellow at the Ash Center and another coauthor of the report. “No one in Australia thinks of it as a piece of totalitarian coercion,” he said. “It is simply part of the culture.”
But Australia and the US are different countries, of course. Many Americans have a deeply felt historic and cultural attachment to concepts of freedom and liberty that shape their view of government. Would they ever get on board with the government forcing them to show up to the polls?
Advocates say it becomes easier to imagine compulsory voting in the US when you consider the many things the government already compels Americans to do — like serve jury duty, pay taxes, and educate their children. “We’re required as a matter of civic duty to serve on juries, and the reason for that is that we want the jury pool to reflect the population as a whole,” said Rapoport. “I think the exact same logic applies to voting — we should want everyone to vote so the decisions made in the voting booth genuinely reflect the population as a whole. When you have turnouts of 50% or 60%, you’re not really getting the consent of all the governed.”
Experts say perhaps the greatest benefit in making voting mandatory is how it would likely force lawmakers to remove many barriers to participation that lead to widespread voter suppression. Such measures took many forms in the leadup to the 2020 election: More than 21,000 polling places were closed nationwide, Texas shuttered all but one mail-in ballot drop-off site per county, Georgia purged its voter rolls, and more than 5 million people were barred from voting due to a felony conviction. President Donald Trump also did everything he could to sow fear and confusion around voting, provoking distrust in mail-in voting and urging his supporters to “watch” polling places — prompting some of them to show up with guns, intimidating voters.
All these actions disproportionately make voting harder for younger voters and people of color and overrepresent older Americans in the political process. During the 2014 midterm elections, 67-year-old voters had more than six times the voting influence of 18-year-olds, Anthony Fowler, a public policy professor at the University of Chicago, wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. “These disparities may partly explain why elected officials in the United States are, on average, older and wealthier than the populations they represent and why the policies they support often fail to reflect the preferences of their constituents,” Fowler wrote.
Making voting mandatory would put the onus on the government to make voting as accessible as possible, said Nelson with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “I think it trains our focus on any state apparatus that impedes the ability of particular groups to vote,” she said. “When everyone is compelled to turn out, you’d see a barrier that’s impeding certain groups from complying with a mandate, and others don’t have that same obstacle.”
Though compulsory voting has yet to become a widely discussed public issue, it did get one big vote of confidence in 2015: when then-president Barack Obama said it would be “transformative if everybody voted.”
"The people who tend not to vote are young. They're lower income. They're skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups," Obama said at a town hall event in Cleveland. "There's a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls."
During this year’s election, there were huge efforts by politicians and celebrities to promote the importance of voting. Both Trump and Biden described the election as the most important vote in US history, creating a sense of urgency around heading to the polls. But there were other factors unique to 2020 that contributed to the huge turnout, according to Dionne, the Georgetown University professor. “We had an enormous increase in turnout this year,” Dionne said. “Now, some of that was that people on all sides of politics understood how high the stakes were in this election, but I believe another reason is that we made it easier for people to vote due to the pandemic. The number of people who were able to cast mail ballots was exponentially larger than we’ve ever had.”
Advocates argue solidifying voting as a part of American culture under the law could spur complementary reforms that help get more people into the voting booth, such as expanding absentee voting, increasing the number of polling sites, establishing automatic voter registration, and making Election Day a federal holiday.
But it could also help people become more informed voters, said Rapoport, the former Connecticut secretary of state. “If you’re a principal of a high school or a superintendent, and every 18-year-old was required to vote, would that make you more likely to do civic education as part of the curriculum? I think it would,” said Rapoport. “If you’re an employer, and every one of your employees was required to vote, would that make you likely to give them time off to participate? I think it would.”
This hints at one of the most common objections to compulsory voting: the rather crass assumption that nonvoters are uneducated and ill-informed on politics, and therefore are better off not voting. Nelson of the NAACP LDF unequivocally rejected that argument, calling it “fully disingenuous.”
“If people were truly concerned about people voting who aren’t educated, their focus should be on education and not the right to vote,” said Nelson.
In Australia, voter turnout has been well over 90% since voting was made mandatory, according to the Australian Electoral Commission. Eligible voters who do not vote are subject to a $20 fine, which can be waived if a “valid and sufficient” excuse is provided. In some of the other countries where voting is compulsory, including Costa Rica and Greece, the mandate is not enforced, however, leading to lower turnout.
US compulsory voting advocates mostly want to follow Australia’s lead and levy a minimal penalty at most for those who don’t show up to vote — a very low fee or small community service commitment, which could also be waived for legitimate excuses. But some are instead advocating for incentives instead of penalties, such as voters being entered into a lottery.
“Our first and foremost concern is not to burden African American voters any more than they have been historically and continue to in the present day. So we have taken great pains to consider the idea of compulsory voting...in ways that will not replicate the racial disparities that we fight so hard against,” said Nelson. “Knowing about the overcriminalization of communities of color, will this provide another penalty or another area of prosecution that will be placed upon these communities? That is something we are against and have thought about very carefully.”
Opponents of compulsory voting in the US argue requiring it would constitute compelled speech, which violates the First Amendment. But advocates contend that no one would, in fact, be forced to place a vote. They would simply be required to turn up at their polling place on Election Day. This measure would also allow people who do not vote for religious reasons, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, to comply with their faith. “People use the term compulsory voting because it’s a simple term, but under these systems, no one is actually obligated to vote for anyone,” said Dionne, the Georgetown University professor. “You can cast a blank ballot. You can draw Mickey Mouse on your ballot. You do whatever you choose to do.”
Experts also believe that compulsory voting would improve the quality of campaigns, so that candidates and parties could focus entirely on spreading the word about what policies they stand for — not just galvanizing their base to show up to the polls in the first place. “Campaigns now, as you saw in 2020, are frantic races for one party or one candidate to turn out his or her vote — and in the worst-case scenario, to depress the turnout of the other team,” said Rapoport. “If everyone is required to vote, then everyone is listening. Campaigns will not need to spend anywhere near the amount of time or money turning out the vote, but they will have to spend time and money convincing everybody that the ideas on which they’re running are the better ideas.”
Some assume compulsory voting would disproportionately benefit the left by getting younger, low-income, and more racially diverse voters into the booth. But Jason Brennan, a public policy professor at Georgetown, said research does not indicate that making voting mandatory would significantly change the results of any given election, the way abolishing the Electoral College in favor of the popular vote would in all likelihood give Democrats an advantage. “Surprisingly, nonvoters are fairly evenly split in their behavior, so it might not really help one party over the other that much,” Brennan said.
Brennan is not in favor of compulsory voting, as he does not believe it would not have tangible benefits if implemented. “People promise all sorts of benefits from compulsory voting — they say it will bring the country together, it will increase moderation and decrease polarization, usually they say it’ll help their party win more seats,” Brennan said. “I think if we have strong evidence that it did some of that, I think it would be worth talking about whether we should talk about it, but the evidence isn’t really there.”
But, for Rapoport, Dionne, and other advocates like them, the goal of compulsory voting is not to impact who wins — it’s to ensure the most possible people can have their voices heard.
“The point is not to change outcomes. To the contrary, we’re not proposing this because we think it will help one party or another,” he said. “I think the point is in the democratic impulse itself — that this will encourage the fullest participation, and whether that changes the outcome or not is not central to our argument whatsoever.”
“Something we did see in 2020 is that higher turnout does not necessarily favor one party,” Dionne said. “More Democratic voters came out, and more Republican voters came out, and we think that’s a good thing.”