After reading one of my posts—about the importance of creating an American culture of voting—a friend of mine said, "Why not just pass a law, make people vote?"
This question often comes up in discussions about turnout, and it's a good one. The best model is Australia, which has a law authorizing fines for non-voters that rise with each offense. The law doesn't require Australians to vote for a candidate but merely to show up.
It's worked: Turnout in Australia is among the highest in the world. Is this the right solution for Americans? Peter Orszag makes the case:
The U.S. prides itself as the beacon of democracy, but it's very likely that no American president has ever been elected by a majority of American adults...Compulsory voting, as exists in Australia and more than two dozen other countries would fix that problem. As William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues, 'Jury duty is mandatory: why not voting?'
The jury duty analogy is instructive, but not in the way Orszag and Galston intended. Serving on a jury is a civic responsibility. Voting is a civic responsibility too, but it is also a right. You've probably heard people chastise non-voters by saying, "People fought and died for the right to vote." That's true, but just as someone may choose not to exercise the right to free speech, a person should be able not to exercise the right to vote. Rights cut both ways.
Some people choose not to go to the polls because they don't want to participate in and thereby support a system they see as irredeemably flawed. Although I wouldn't recommend that course of action, I wouldn't want the government to stop people from taking it. Non-voting can be a political act as well, and the law should protect it.
In many countries that don't require people to vote, like Germany, France, and Sweden, people also go the polls in huge numbers. We in the United States can follow those countries and use non-coercive ways to increase voter turnout.
We can, for example, Take Back Tuesday.
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne