Greg asks a good question about the literature on compulsory voting in the comments. I hope someone knows the answer.
The Institute for Public Policy Research in the U.K. has published a report advocating compulsory voting, to counter the trend in recent British elections towards lower voter turnout. Turnout was around 60% in the last two general elections–the lowest since World War I.
This report comes just a couple of months after the Power Inquiry accounted for, among other things, the low voting turnout in the U.K., specifically blaming first-past-the-post voting and other institutional obstacles to voters’ sense of political efficacy.
In the USA, it is worth noting, 60% would be considered a high turnout and a sign that democracy had been reinvigorated. In fact, the nearly 60% turnout in the 2004 presidential election practically generated spontaneous celebration from the punditry class. But, in fact, American electoral turnout is among the very lowest of the established democracies.
Just today I had received the most recent Journal of Theoretical Politics, which happens to contain an article by Lisa Hill entitled “Low Voter Turnout in the United States: Is Compulsory Voting a Viable Solution?” Here is its abstract:
Americaâ€™s turnout problem is among the worst of any of the established democracies. Even a reform as sweeping as the NVRA (Motor Voter Act) has failed to remedy it. Adopting an empirically informed normative approach, the author proposes and defends an ambitious solution: compulsory voting. Anticipating considerable resistance to this proposal, the article explores likely cultural, practical, political and legal barriers to its introduction and, in some cases, suggests strategies for overcoming them. It is concluded that most of the likely impediments are not technically, but rather, culturally and politically intractable. Yet, compulsory voting could have many benefits. Not only could it improve turnout more effectively than any other measure, but it could also close Americaâ€™s yawning SES voting gap, limit some of the problems associated with campaign finance and break the cycle of low efficacy, alienation, non-participation and exclusion that characterizes American politics. Finally, compulsory voting can serve and protect such important democratic values as representativeness, legitimacy and political equality.
About thirty democracies currently have compulsory voting in elections for the lower house of parliament (and presidency, if any). Included among these democracies are Australia, Belgium, and Costa Rica.
The liberal in me recoils at the idea of governments telling citizens of a free society that they have to participate. The social democrat in me says there are certain things that citizens in a free society are not free to disengage from. Ultimately, the green in me says that voting is not enough, but it’s a good start, and it needs to be not mandatory, but meaningful, so that nearly all citizens will participate voluntarily.
A debate worth having–on both sides of the Atlantic.
More, including some good links on the debate, at Make My Vount Count (of course).