For this first episode, we’re going to do a brief rundown on compulsory voting. Compulsory voting is not a new concept. Belgium instituted it in 1894. Interestingly enough, the State of Georgia initially had a clause in their state constitution saying that all male white inhabitants, of the age of twenty-one years, so on and so forth, must vote by ballot personally. This was undone about 12 years later, but the idea of forcing citizens to vote isn’t anything new. Today, 15 countries enforce compulsory voting, and another 8 have it in their laws but there’s really no punishment for not voting there. Compulsory voting is actually enforced in North Korea, although only one candidate appears on the ballot.
Australia has had a long and rather successful run with compulsory voting. While they, as any country, go through their political swings and cycles, their voting system allows for a more moderate change in politics by getting the silent majority into the votes. Jonathan Levine writes: “All U.S. presidents are charged with representing not just those who vote for them but all Americans. Yet as more and more people choose to abstain, elected officials rule with less and less consent … We scoff when … dictators are “elected” with 99 percent of the vote, yet … [its] … almost as sobering that Bill Clinton became president in 1992 when more than 75 percent of the electorate did not vote for him.”
Compulsory voting leads to a more representative government. There is some truth to the idea that the media in the United States is, willingly or unwillingly, catering to extremes on both sides. While I don’t think being an enlightened centrist is inherently correct, its a good place to start and better than nothing. Just don’t say to yourself that the parties are the same or imply that they’re both correct. They’re not. Could it be the case that progressive wing parties are correct on some issues and conservative wing parties are correct on others? Absolutely. But don’t fall into blanket beliefs and misbeliefs about both sides of an issue. Be aware of your biases. You can get ideas from both sides, just do the research for yourself. THEN, form your opinion. If you don’t, then you’re just another victim to cognitive biases.
Plato wrote about gaining knowledge in his seventh book of The Republic: “Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” Nowhere does this principle have more weight than in discussions regarding compulsory voting in the United States. In standing against such a policy, I have two core arguments. The first argument will demonstrate that instituting compulsory voting in this nation greatly interferes with our freedoms, specifically speech and religion. The second argument will propose a criticism of forced democracy and explain how mandating complete involvement in the political decisions of our country will not improve its well-being.
First, compulsory voting violates our right to free speech. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote:
“Without promise of a limiting Bill of Rights, it is doubtful if our Constitution could have mustered enough strength to enable its ratification. To enforce those rights today is not to choose weak government over strong government. It is only to adhere as a means of strength to individual freedom of mind in preference to officially disciplined uniformity for which history indicates a disappointing and disastrous end.”
This comes from the West Virginia Board v. Barnette (1943) case, which ruled that “We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent … no official, high or petty, can … force citizens to confess by word or act their faith.” The government simply does not, and should not, have the ability to force its citizens to present a vote of confidence in someone they do not know. Citizen protection from government-compelled speech has been upheld multiple times, including in Wooley v. Maynard (1977) and Rumsfeld v. Forum (2006). Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated in Rumsfield: “Some of this Court’s leading First Amendment precedents have established the principle that freedom of speech prohibits the government from telling people what they must say.” Since compulsory voting is an act of compelled speech, it violates the First Amendment and should not be upheld.
Second, compulsory voting infringes on our right to the free exercise of religious practices. The Supreme Court ruled in Torcaso v. Watkins (1961) that the Government cannot “pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.” Many religious groups including Christadelphians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, “remain resolutely neutral with regard to the political affairs of the nations.” This means that those groups, among others, do not participate in politics unless they feel there is a candidate who truly represents their beliefs, instead of just choosing the lesser of two evils. By forcing our citizen’s hands, we are not only showing no regard to their first amendment rights and its later Supreme Court interpretations, but we are also undermining the ideals this country seemed to have been founded upon.
The second argument against compulsory voting will, unlike the first, undermine what some consider an important foundation in our country: and that is democracy. Before we consider this claim, it is crucial to clarify that by instituting compulsory voting, we will also in effect be instituting an increased level of democracy. This is because, by definition, all citizens will be voting instead of allowing people to abstain. With that said, while almost all Americans seem to view democracy as “very important” to the United States, some more notable political philosophers in history have considered it less than ideal. Plato, for instance, ranked it fourth out of only five types of governments, second worst only to tyranny in The Republic. Loren Samons writes:
“…the people that gave rise to and practiced ancient democracy left us almost nothing but criticism of this form of regime. And what is more, the actual history of Athens in the period of its democratic government is marked by numerous failures, mistakes, and misdeeds that would seem to discredit this ubiquitous modern idea that democracy leads to good government.”
But a critical thing to note here is that philosophers rarely think of these regimes as discrete ideas. They are viewed as progressions on one another, meaning each leads to the next. Karl Marx, for example, didn’t believe socialism was simply a beneficial system: he believed it would come from an inevitable fall of capitalism. He argued that the only way people would support socialism was if capitalism fails them. You couldn’t just jump to socialism (as some countries have tried): it had to progress. Likewise, Plato didn’t simply believe democracy was second-worst only to tyranny: he believed democracy would lead to tyranny. He argues this through the idea of ochlocracy, or mob rule. This occurs when significant power is vested in all citizens, giving them the ability to run, and eventually ruin a nation. Again, in his work The Republic, Plato writes, “Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, dispenses a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike.” Mob rule has spurred heinous events throughout history, including, but certainly not limited to, the dislocation and systematic killings of Native Americans, the Salem Witch Trials, and the racist mob lynchings and farce prosecutions of the 20th century that still happen today.
If the point has not yet been portrayed, Plato simply did not believe the average citizen should be the judge, jury, and executioner of his country. He believed in an aristocracy, or a government that is ran by a high class, but not the high class we think of today. Instead of privileged, white billionaires he argued for a state run by the intelligent class (he describes them as “philosopher-kings”). While I don’t advocate for an aristocracy, I do plan to expound on why the average American should not be forced into deciding our country’s fate.
The first reason is that low-informed voters are reckless voters. Because they don’t understand the policies for which candidates support, studies have shown that they base their decisions on other arbitrary factors, including candidate attractiveness (Riggle, et. al), using candidate race and gender to support the voter’s personal biases (McDermott), or the widespread issue of knowing absolutely nothing about any candidate, so simply voting for the name atop the ballot (Brockington).
The second reason may offend some but needs to be said: Americans are simply not that bright. There was a time not too long ago when our society found entertainment in a game show that tested our adult knowledge against those of fifth graders. The game that, in ninety-eight episodes, had only two winners: a state superintendent and a Physics Nobel Prize winner. Another case against the average American voter intelligence is that a study published in 2018 showed that barely one-third of Americans could pass the American Citizenship Test, ironic considering this same test is used to see if incoming citizens are worthy enough to participate in our politics. If this evidence doesn’t convince, the New York Post was kind enough to put it simply: “US adults are dumber than the average human”. This conclusion was taken from a study from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which found that Americans score less than average on tests designed to “assess and compare the basic skills and the broad range of competencies of adults around the world.”
Not even discussing the technical problems that instituting such a massive change would have on our society, we can see the fundamental issues with compulsory voting. It violates our freedoms of speech and religion and puts undue power in the uninformed. History has seen what happens when the biased and low-information mob starts running society. Let’s not repeat that.
What we need to do instead is two things. First, promote open-mindedness in educating ourselves on these issues. And no, being progressive doesn’t automatically qualify you as being open-minded. We, as citizens, need to start informing ourselves about what we want before we can expect government officials to start doing what we want. Too many people complain that politicians only serve themselves, but then turn around and vote for them again because they don’t have a solid opinion on the issues.
Once we’ve educated ourselves on the issues, we need to be more open to discussing them with others. There are some issues where you can agree to disagree. Other’s, not so much. Either way, getting opinions out into the open is only a win-win scenario. Let’s say Bob and Frank are arguing about who’s right. (In actuality, Frank is right, just fyi). If they were to just agree to disagree, then Bob is straight outta luck because he left that interaction without knowing what is right and Frank missed an opportunity to grow confidence in his own beliefs. But if they were to put it out there, then two things happen. Most importantly is that Bob now knows what is right, but now Frank is also that more sure of himself that he is right, and he is that much better at explaining it to the next person. And who knows, maybe Bob had a point Frank never considered before. Either way, they both come out better than before.
This is called the marketplace of ideas. James Gibson writes that “The idea of a marketplace is that anyone can put forth a product—an idea—for political “consumers” to consider. The success of the idea is determined by the level of support freely given in the market. The market encourages deliberation, through which superior ideas are found to be superior, and through which the flaws of bad ideas are exposed for all to see.” The Supreme Court supported this idea in the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines, in which they ruled that “our Constitution says we must take this risk… and our history says that it is this sort of hazardous freedom — this kind of openness — that is the basis of our national strength.”
There is no better way to promote education than through free speech. To quote Silverglate, French, and Lukianoff in an essay from 2005:
In his classic treatise, On Liberty (1859), the English philosopher John Stuart Mill noted that while many people claim to believe in “free speech,” in fact just about everyone has his or her own notions of what speech is dangerous, or worthless, or just plain wrong—and, for those reasons, undeserving of protection. …Mill provided a thorough, powerful, and compelling argument for unfettered free speech. Human beings are neither infallible nor all-knowing, and the opinion one despises might, in fact, be right, or, even if incorrect, “contain a portion of truth” that we would not have discovered if the opinion had been silent. Further, Mill argued, even if the opinion of the censors was the whole truth, if their ideas were not permitted to be “vigorously and earnestly contested,” we would believe the truth not as a fully understood or internalized idea, but simply as a prejudice: something we believe obstinately without being able to explain why we believe it. Mill understood…that if we did not have to defend our beliefs and values, they would lose their vitality, becoming merely rote formulas, not deep, living, and creative convictions.
The Supreme Court again supported this notion in their 1949 case Terminiello v. Chicago:
A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute …is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment.
Forcing people to vote is not the way to go. Getting people to know for themselves what they want FIRST is what’s essential. Then, and only then, will increased voter turnout be beneficial for our country.