The Best Policy

You Must Vote. It’s the Law.

Australia requires citizens to vote. Should the U.S.?

This election season has produced a mother lode of innovative get-out-the-vote campaigns. No longer content to merely Rock the Vote, we now hip-hop the vote and pray the vote. encourages young people to reward voting with sex. A “patriot-level commitment,” for instance, means you agree to have sex with another voter on Election Day—and withhold sex from nonvoters for one week. The group claims to have enlisted some 30,000 amorous patriots already.

In Australia, a country no less fond of sex, such campaigns are unnecessary. Voter turnout is already 95 percent of registered voters. The reason is simple: It’s the law. Those who fail to vote risk a fine and, in rare cases, imprisonment. Advocates of mandatory voting argue it’s a sensible way to ensure that elections reflect the will of all of the people. Only 67 percent of American registered voters, by contrast, bothered to show up on Election Day in 2000.

Australia, along with Belgium, is the only “mature democracy” that requires its citizens to vote and actually enforces the law. Australia is also a nation we Americans can relate to. We share similar historical narratives (outcasts fleeing Mother England), a frontier spirit, and a laid-back nature that drives Europeans nuts. So Australia makes an interesting test case for an intriguing question: Could mandatory voting work in the United States?

Australians have been required to vote in federal elections since 1924. Concerned that voter turnout had dipped below 60 percent, parliament enacted mandatory voting after only 90 minutes of debate, and it’s gone largely unchallenged ever since. Polls regularly show 70 percent to 80 percent of Australians support mandatory voting. Lisa Hill, a research fellow at the University of Adelaide, explains it this way: “We’re quite happy with some forms of coercion that others may not be happy with.”

Actually, the voting part of “mandatory voting” is a misnomer. All Australian citizens over the age of 18 must register and show up at a polling station, but they need not actually vote. They can deface their ballot or write in Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (Australia’s version of Lassie)—or do nothing at all.

What happens if you don’t show up on Election Day? You’ll receive a fairly polite form letter (see example here). At this point, you can settle the matter by paying a $15 fine or offering any number of excuses, including illness (no note from your doctor required), travel, religious objections, or just plain forgetfulness. For most people, the matter ends here. In most elections, about a half-million registered voters don’t come to the polls. Ninety-five percent of them offer a valid excuse, and the matter ends there. Five percent pay a fine.

A few hundred cases each election actually end up in court. Those who refuse to pay the fine or offer a plausible excuse face escalating threats, similar to the ones you receive from American Express when your balance is past due. The fine jumps to $37 and, in extreme cases, a brief prison sentence is imposed. But the Australian government clearly doesn’t want to imprison a lot of its citizens for not voting. I’ve been able to find only a few cases of Aussies going to jail over this in the past few decades—all conscientious objectors courting arrest. A significant percentage of Australians—about 15 percent of them—don’t bother to register at all. The government doesn’t go after these people, reserving fines and prosecutions only for those who register and don’t show up on Election Day. (Australia’s 80-plus percent registration rate is very high compared to other democracies.)

Every election, a few gadflies call attention to the contradiction between free elections and what is effectively forced voting. Frank Devine, a journalist, wrote an editorial in the Weekend Australian the day before this month’s elections, proclaiming that “with some misgivings, I have decided not to vote tomorrow.” Devine pointed out that parking fines in Australia can be 10 times higher than the fine for not voting. “The disparity of punishment for these two scofflaw transgressions illustrates the flippancy with which our politicians have come to regard an act of repressive authoritarianism,” he wrote. If the Australian government were serious about mandatory voting, Devine argued, it would impose much stiffer penalties.

Most Australians obey the law, however, convinced that mandatory voting makes their nation a more robust democracy. That’s a difficult case to make. Yes, voter turnout is remarkably high, but it was in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, too. There is no evidence that Australians are better-informed citizens than Americans. If anything, mandatory voting has reinforced straight party-line voting, since reluctant voters find it easier to align themselves with one party or another and get the whole business done with as quickly as possible.

Mandatory voting isn’t politically neutral. It’s bound to affect which parties do well at the polls and which do not. In general, political scientists believe the practice gives a slight edge (2 percent or 3 percent) to liberal parties, since presumably the poor and disenfranchised, once forced to the polls, tend to vote liberal (although Australia did just re-elect conservative * Prime Minister John Howard).

Australia also has a much higher rate of spoiled ballots than nearly any other democracy. There were 500,000 such ballots (out of 10 million cast) in this month’s election. These include protest votes and those cast by recent immigrants who were confused by the notoriously complicated ballots. It does not include “donkey votes,” so named because apathetic voters play pin the tail on the donkey at the polling station, randomly making their selections.

So, might mandatory voting work in the United States? It’s a tempting quick fix to our low levels of voter turnout. Also, imagine our political parties freed from the burden of having to energize their base. Candidates could focus on converting voters, rather than trying to get them to the polls. As for concerns that mandatory voting represents government coercion, one might argue that our government coerces its citizens to perform many duties: pay taxes, attend school, serve on juries and, in times of war, fight and die for the nation.

In the end, though, mandatory voting is extremely unlikely to work in the states. An ABC News poll conducted this past summer found that 72 percent of those surveyed oppose the idea. The results are almost identical to a similar poll conducted by Gallup 40 years ago. Why such resistance? Perhaps because we view voting as a right, not a responsibility, and nothing is likely to alter that bedrock belief.

Also, mandatory voting would probably cause a further dumbing-down of election campaigns, if such a thing is possible. Motivated by a need to attract not only undecided voters but also unwilling voters, candidates would probably resort to an even baser brand of political advertising, since they would now be trying to reach people who are voting only out of a desire to obey the law and avoid a fine.

Mandatory voting would be a nightmare to enforce and would rob us of an important barometer of public interest in politics. If everyone were required to vote, then nobody would be excited to vote. And, of course, there’s another downside: We’d also lose all of those entertaining get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Correctio n, Oct. 29, 2004: Due to a copy editing error, the article originally identified Prime Minister John Howard as “Conservative Prime Minister John Howard.” Although Howard is indeed politically conservative, he leads Australia’s Liberal Party. (Return to corrected sentence.)