Not enough people vote. It’s a perennial source of concern in American politics. There’s no shortage of reforms designed to address the problem, but one idea that seems particularly promising, at least in theory, is compulsory voting. It would produce much higher turnout for the obvious reason that it requires people to vote. It’s long been dismissed, though, as an impossible pipe dream, unlikely to ever happen in the United States. But if reformers were to start at the municipal level, they could set into motion forces that might lead to its nationwide adoption. Start with some statistics: In years with presidential elections, voter turnout peaks at just above 60 percent. In off-year elections, turnout dips to 40 percent or less. In November 2014, only 36 percent of eligible voters went to the polls—the lowest share in more than 70 years. Participation this paltry calls into question the political system’s legitimacy. It also hints that election outcomes might be quite different if more people bothered to show up.
There are many policies that, if implemented, would increase turnout. Extended early and absentee voting would lengthen the period for casting ballots. Automatic voter registration would add drivers to the rolls when they apply for licenses. And moving Election Day to Saturday would make it easier for full-time employees to participate. But the most obvious way to get more people to vote doesn’t attract nearly enough attention. It’s to oblige people to vote.
Compulsory voting isn’t as draconian as it sounds. No one is dragged to the polls against his or her will, and no one is thrown in jail for refusing to cast a ballot. Instead, a modest fine (about $20 in Australia) is levied on people who fail to show up and have no good excuse for their absence. There also isn’t any danger of political speech being compelled—a no-no under the First Amendment. People are free to do what they like with their ballots, including turning them in blank.