Republicans are attempting to limit voter turnout in various states, including Pennsylvania, by requiring citizens to produce particular forms of photographic identification on election day in order to exercise their right to vote.
We should be doing just the opposite. In fact, we should be doing whatever we can to increase voter turnout on Election Day. The easiest way to do that would be to require all citizens to vote under penalty of paying a small, perhaps $3, fine for failing to vote, as is done in Australia, Brazil, Singapore, Uruguay, and several other democracies.
Mandatory voting would insure that elected officials are truly representative of their electorates, and not just those most interested in and most able to vote on Election Day. In the U.S. we are experiencing political gridlock because both major political parties are dominated by their most extreme wings which are most likely to vote and be politically active. Mandatory voting would force both political parties and all candidates to pitch their campaigns towards the political center where the less politically attentive have been prone to not voting.
Mandatory voting will ensure that even the least privileged segments of the electorate will have a say in the outcome of elections, and may to some extent mitigate the impact of money on elections, since “get out the vote” efforts will no longer be required. Citizens may be more attentive to political developments and issues knowing that they are required to vote on Election Day. Mandatory voting would also prevent efforts at voter suppression by employers or special interests or anyone else.
U.S. citizens have many obligations under our Constitution and laws. Citizens are required to pay taxes and to attend school up to a certain age. Citizens are required to show up for jury duty when summoned, and are subject to military conscription whenever Congress requires. Citizens who are financially able, we recently learned, can be compelled to purchase health insurance or pay a fine. In comparison, requiring citizens to vote would be a minor imposition, but with big, positive consequences for democracy.
Mandatory voting will not insure a 100 percent voter turnout. Exceptions will have to be made for those physically unable, or who otherwise have a good excuse. There will always be some who neglect or who deliberately choose not to vote. The fine for not voting may be difficult to collect.
But jurisdictions that have imposed the legal requirement of a small payment for every disposable grocery or merchandise bag, have seen a dramatic increase in customers bringing their own re-usable bags or alternatively juggling their purchases without a bag to avoid paying an extra nickel or dime. Most voters can be expected to make considerable effort to vote if it means avoiding a fine of even just a few dollars.
Functioning democracies require citizen participation. Higher participation by citizens gives legitimacy and respect to elected leaders and the electoral process. We should stop trying to restrict voting for citizens, and instead should do what is necessary to insure that every citizen votes.
Jan Ting is a Professor of Law at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and a former Assistant Commissioner for Refugees, Asylum and Parole, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Justice. Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.