Should voting be mandatory? Just 62 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the last U.S. presidential election--with turnout even lower among young voters.
Thirty-one countries have some form of mandatory voting. The United States should join that list.
Consider the experience of Australia. Alarmed by a decline in voter turnout to less than 60 percent early in the 20th century, Australia adopted mandatory voting in 1924, backed by small fines for not voting.
The results were remarkable. In the 1925 election, turnout soared to 91 percent. In recent elections, it has hovered around 95 percent, with most Australians now regarding voting as a civic obligation.
American citizenship today confers many rights but requires few responsibilities, especially since the abolition of the military draft in 1973. Requiring people to vote would reinforce the principle of reciprocity at the heart of citizenship: You must give to get. It would also make our democracy more responsive to the interests of all citizens, since elected officials are more likely to pay attention to those who vote.
Low turnout is one reason for the polarization of American politics: Hard-core partisans--very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats--are more likely to dominate elections when turnout is low, while more-moderate politicians tend not to participate at levels proportional to their share of the electorate.
Imagine our politics in a world of near-universal voting: Campaigns could devote far less money to get-out-the-vote efforts. Candidates would know they must do more than mobilize their bases with red-meat rhetoric on hot-button issues. Such a system would also improve our legislative process. Rather than focusing on symbolic gestures to appease partisans, Congress might actually roll up its sleeves and tackle the serious issues it's now ignoring.
--WILLIAM A. GALSTON
Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
Instead of making elections mandatory, we should make them more competitive, because one of the strongest predictors of voter turnout is whether voters have meaningful choices.
There are some simple ways to accomplish that. For starters, we should eliminate the ability of Democrats and Republicans to design "safe" (that is, noncompetitive) election districts for themselves and their allies.
California's recent experience provides a perfect example. In 2000, when redistricting was in the hands of state legislators, California ended up with districts that produced almost no competitive races for either Congress or the State Legislature. Fed up with the system, California voters created an independent citizen-led redistricting commission. The redistricting plan they came up with after the 2010 Census is expected to produce the most competitive congressional races in decades this November.
Second, states should consider open political primaries in which independents--voters not registered with a political party--can vote in the primary of their choice. Broadening the primary electorate to include independents would generate more centrist candidates and help make general elections more competitive.
Finally, we need public financing of elections. The most difficult task challengers face is raising enough money to become widely known. Public financing--a system more states and localities are adopting--would ensure that credible challengers have access to the resources they need to make more races competitive.
If we care about political participation, we shouldn't turn to superficial devices like mandatory voting. Forcing people to participate who don't want to does nothing to make our system more democratic.
Professor of Law, New York University