This post originally appeared at the Legislation Law Prof Blog
If history is any guide, turnout on this midterm election day won’t top 45% of eligible voters. (It hasn’t since 1970.) Over half of Americans, apparently, simply don’t feel it’s worth the trouble to vote in a midterm election.
What if we made it easier to vote? WhyTuesday.org notes that in the last census, 27% of nonvoters said they were too busy or couldn’t get the time off to vote. This has long been the number one reason that Americans have said they don’t make it to the polls. How might things be different if Election Day were a national holiday, or if we moved voting to the weekend? Countries that vote on the weekend do have much higher rates of turnout: France (67.3%), Germany (80.2%), Thailand (82.1%), Russia (56.6%), Japan (68.7%).
Some states – including Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, and the territory of Puerto Rico – have made Election Day a civic holiday, meaning state employees get the day off. Congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) has introduced The Weekend Voting Act, H.R.1641, in the U.S. House of Representatives, where govtrack gives it a 1% chance of being enacted. (You can learn about other reforms that would make it easier to vote or increase turnout here, and sign a White House petition to make Election Day a holiday here.)
Even with these attempts at reform, it’s worth asking: is the United States in fact the greatest democracy in the world? At least in terms of voter turnout, it definitely isn’t. Indeed, with just 47.7% average turnout since 1945, the U.S. ranks dead last among G8 countries, and 138th out of the world’s 172 countries. The numbers are enough to make one wonder if there might be some people in the United States who like it this way, and would prefer not to have more Americans at the polls.
But what if things were different? What if we not only got time off work to vote, but we were also expected to vote as one of our civic duties?
In 1996, Professor Arendt Lijphart used his Presidential Address to the American Political Science Association to think through these questions. He reasoned that low voter turnout is a serious democratic problem, because, among other things, it systematically biases the vote against less well-to-do citizens, and it leads to unequal political influence. After considering possible reforms like weekend voting, Lijphart concluded that, in the end, compulsory voting is the better option – its advantages “far outweigh the normative and practical objections to it.” If you think low turnout is problematic — or, especially, if you don’t — the speech is worth a read.
From time to time, Americans have actually experimented with making voting a legal duty. From 1777 to 1789, the Georgia state constitution required people to vote (at least those white men who then had the franchise). And during the early 1890s, Kansas City required its residents to vote. In 1896, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the provision in Kansas City v. Whipple, but as former White House counsel John Dean has pointed out, that case didn’t resolve the question of whether it would be permissible under the U.S. Constitution to require citizens to vote.
Looking around the world, there are 22 countries that require their citizens to vote (though not all of them enforce the requirement). These include Greece, Belgium, Mexico, most of the countries in South America, and even the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Australia, where voting has been mandatory since 1924, voter turnout rates are regularly between 93 and 95 percent.
So when you head to the polls today – and we at ALICE certainly hope you do – take a moment to think about whether the U.S. should join the club. Would it be un-American to require our fellow citizens to participate in choosing our elected representatives? Or is it more un-American to be okay with the fact that in midterm elections, most of them don’t?