The worst way to fix a problem is to start making changes before you have a real idea of the extent of the issue. Based on incomplete data, you start messing with the various components, and soon you have a bigger problem than you started with. Now you have to spend even more time fixing the new problems you’ve created, while still missing the fix for the first one.
Low voter turnout is a problem: It means that the elected officials are being chosen by a smaller and smaller subset of the citizens they represent. And as that set gets smaller, the potential for electoral manipulation changing the outcome of an election increases dramatically. To combat the low turnout, each candidate’s supporters put an incredible amount of effort into “get out the vote”, nagging and prodding voters to get to the polls to vote. And during each election cycle, there are also a handful of non-partisan groups that try to encourage voters to vote. Neither has fixed the problem. Turnout rates keep dropping.
So why don’t we start addressing the problem right at the source? Instead of trying to woo people into voting, let’s make it mandatory. Currently, the easiest course of action for the unengaged voter is to simply not vote, and there is nothing you can do to make voting easier than not voting. Not voting has no cost. But if voting became mandatory, an expectation of every eligible voter, then there is a cost to neglecting your obligation. The actual penalty would be almost symbolic, a small fine added to your tax return if you fail to vote, but there would be a direct consequence to your abdication of your duty. People would still be free to spoil or refuse their ballot, but they’d have to put the effort in to do that. They’d have to opt out.
The recurring argument I hear against mandatory voting is that it would lead to a huge increase in uninformed “meaningless” votes. I’d like to suggest that the un-cast vote is the most uninformed and meaningless choice, a choice that frees the potential voter of the irritating sting of culpability. When they don’t vote, they avoid taking any responsibility for the subsequent decisions of their representatives and the consequences of those choices.
Yes, there will be quite a few people who are suddenly compelled to make some kind of decision at the poll that will put as much thought into their vote as they do to their choice of donut. But for the entire term that follows, they will constantly be reminded of that choice. Instead of being able to sit on the porch and complain about the mess somebody else made, they’ll have to admit that they own a tiny little sliver of the blame. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll think it through next time.
And after a few elections with mandatory voting in place, we might observe that there are still problems with our electoral model. There are a variety of other changes that we can put into place, but before we undertake the complicated solutions, let’s get as big a sample size as possible to understand the full extent of the problem at hand.