Plato wrote concerning the attainment of knowledge in the 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. While compulsory voting is a rather simple concept, Oxford Dictionaries does define compulsory as “required by law or a rule.”
With that in mind, those who are in favor of compulsory voting must show that a government (in this case, the United States’) has both the justification and the ability to require that all its citizens participate in voting. 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 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.” How does this affect compulsory voting? To conclude the majority opinion, Jackson wrote simply: “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 (strictly Bible-believing Christians who reject the declarations of the Council of Nicaea) 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: 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 limiting who can vote. 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 reason people would support socialism was that capitalism had failed 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 judge, jury, and executioner. He believed in an aristocracy, or a government run 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 won’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, 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.