- President Obama endorses mandatory voting.
In his speech, President Obama claimed that mandatory voting would diminish the significance of money in politics. The opposite effect is more likely. Most campaign spending represents expenditures on televised ads. For fairly obvious reasons, relatively ignorant voters are more likely to be influenced by simplistic 30 second ads than relatively well-informed ones (who, among other things, tend to have stronger preexisting views). Thus, a more ignorant electorate is likely to be one where campaign spending on television ads exercises more influence. I don’t think the influence of money on politics is either as great or as harmful as President Obama and many other liberals do. But if you disagree with me on that, you may have even more reason to oppose mandatory voting than I do.
Like other defenders of compulsory voting, the president touts the example of Australia, which is indeed a generally well-governed nation that has a compulsory voting law. But the full list of nations with compulsory voting is not one that inspires confidence. It includes such paragons of civic virtue as Argentina, Egypt, Congo, and Lebanon. By contrast, one of the few democracies with lower turnout rates than the United States is Switzerland, which is often considered one of the best-governed nations in the world. I don’t claim that Argentina and Egypt have bad governments and Switzerland a good one because of their respective voting laws. My point is merely that there is no clear correlation between turnout and good governance.
In addition to its potentially harmful consequences, mandatory voting is also an unjust infringement on individual liberty. Some people choose not to vote because they find the available options so distasteful that they don’t want to be in the position of supporting any of them. Even if the ballot includes some sort of “none of the above” option, choosing to vote might still be viewed as at least a partial endorsement of the status quo political system, and some citizens might prefer not to signal any such endorsement. It is debatable whether this is the correct approach to an election with terrible options. I personally believe that is still usually best to vote for the lesser of the available evils. But the opposing view is not unreasonable, and those who act on it don’t deserve to be punished by the government for doing so.
Others can reasonably choose to abstain from voting because they lack the knowledge to make a well-informed choice and (quite rightly) don’t want to harm the rest of society by making ignorant decisions. Given the vast size and complexity of modern government, even intelligent and conscientious people will sometimes find themselves in that position. Finally, many people might prefer not to vote simply because they have better uses for their time, including in some cases uses that create more benefit for society, as well as themselves. Jason Brennan discusses this latter scenario in greater detail in The Ethics of Voting.
Liberal Democratic advocates of compulsory voting are in part motivated by the hope that it will generate increased turnout among young people and racial minorities, thereby securing more electoral victories for their party. But Democratic strategists’ hopes for a bonanza of extra votes in that quarter are matched by GOP hopes for higher turnout among working class whites, who in recent elections have tended to back Republicans, but also have relatively low turnout rates. In addition, as Brennan emphasizes, lower-class and less-educated voters tend to be more socially conservative as well as more economically left-wing. Thus, even if increased turnout within this group gave the Democrats more victories, the resulting Democratic Party would likely be more socially conservative.