If You Make It Mandatory, They Will Have to Come

Compulsory voting can legitimize democracy

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William Brown / www.donnarosenartists.com

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Low voter turnout is problematic for many reasons. For one, it delegitimizes parties in power, as the opposition (read: the loser) can claim that the winning party doesn’t actually represent the people. Exhibit A: Bush v. Gore. Exhibit B: The Tea Party. But it’s not strictly an American problem. Historic low turnout in Canada has Bruce Hicks, in This Magazine (Jan.-Feb. 2011), calling for compulsory voting. “There is no reasonable argument that a few minutes out of a citizen’s day every four years or so . . . is an unfair burden for living in a democracy,” he writes.  

In Australia public opinion polls have swayed in favor of the now mandatory voting, an idea that encountered widespread resistance before being implemented. But in case political leaders elsewhere don’t have the stomach to tell their constituents to take their medicine if they know what’s good for them, Hicks suggests offering a tax credit for voting—“a carrot instead of a stick.” The credit could address issues of income disparity, like transportation and child care, that often affect voting participation.  

With voter turnout in midterm elections in this country hovering near 40 percent, the United States, like Canada, could at the very least benefit from a serious discussion about how to get folks to the polls.

Cover-165-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.