We Will Require You to Vote Because It’s for Your Own Good (and ours)

[Cross-posted at Hit Coffee]

President Obama has suggested that mandatory voting could offset the influence of big money in campaigns. There’s much that is incoherent in this idea.

First, Democrats are doing as well as Republicans in bringing in big money, but their own electoral failure demonstrates big money itself does turn elections.

Second, the non-voters are generally the least engaged,* who presumably are the most likely to be easily swayed by the advertising of big money, or else might vote essentially randomly.

Third, mandatory voting is illiberal. Forced political participation is another form of social control, rather than a form of liberty. Thorouean types are forbidden. The quiet person who harms no one, pays her taxes without complaint, volunteers in the community, but prefers to not vote is made into a criminal.

Fourth, I object to the instinct to motivate people through punitive action. If as a public policy we want people to vote, then let’s look for positive ways to do so. Traditionally this is done via the parties. Voter mobilization is, in fact, one of the primary purposes of parties, and perhaps the primary purpose.

Fifth, Obama is suggesting that these people should vote for their own good. Mandating that people act in their own interest is perverse, and in my view an improper task for government.

Sixth, it’s not at all certain that big money actually deters turnout, rather than stimulating it.

Overall, it appears to me that the President is concerned about Democratic voter turnout specifically, under the guise of being concerned about overall electoral turnout. He specifically mentioned low turnout among young, lower income, immigrant and minority groups, and criticized efforts to deter their turnout. While it’s fair to argue that efforts to deter turnout are a legitimate public policy problem, the fact remains that Obama is particularly focused on low turnout among populations that he expects to be more supportive of his party, so his solution is not to strengthen his own party’s GOTV efforts, or to find ways to effectively combat voter suppression efforts, but to mandate voting by his party’s likely supporters. Even if successful, though, the lack of close races suggests mandatory voting would have little effect on outcomes.

Under the guise of public policy, this appears to be a means of using law to rig the vote in the Democrats’ favor, no less than voter ID laws are (unsuccessful, I think) efforts to rig the vote in Republicans’ favor, and again under the guise of public policy.

Politicians will normally obscure self-interest behind appealing public interest slogans. They do so because it works, which means appeals like my post here to ignore the slogans will only be effective at the margins.

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*Not solely. I have not voted when I have disliked the options, and I have had a political scientist far more reputable than me assert he gives money rather than voting because it gives his effort more influence.

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About James Hanley

James Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of either organization.
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13 Responses to We Will Require You to Vote Because It’s for Your Own Good (and ours)

  1. Pingback: We Will Require You to Vote Because It’s for Your Own Good (and ours) | Hit Coffee

  2. Dr X says:

    “Overall, it appears to me that the President is concerned about Democratic voter turnout specifically, under the guise of being concerned about overall electoral turnout.”

    Yes, but can’t imagine this proposal becoming law anytime soon. And as you suggest, the flip side of the coin is Republicans obsessed with rooting out illegal voting, which is really about lowering turnout among voters more likely to vote Democratic. They have, in fact met with varying degrees of success with voter ID at state levels.

    Though I think we can go overboard with rational actor explanations for behavior, that’s the first place I look for motivation of pols. The less than rational actors have a tendency to lose elections.

  3. mcain6925 says:

    When I want to start arguments, I suggest that the “obvious” way to increase voter participation is to have both easy citizen initiatives and universal vote-by-mail. The first to make it more likely that there will be something on the ballot that each voter is strongly in favor of or opposed to; the latter to make it easier for them to vote (personally, I love that my voting booth has been my kitchen table for the last 15 or more years).

    I expect Arizona and California will be the next two states to adopt the practice of sending a vote-by-mail ballot to all registered voters. The progression seems pretty clear. First states allow voters to sign up for absentee ballots on a permanent rather than annual basis. Then they allow permanent no-excuse absentee ballots, which regular voters flock to. Once they get to 60% of all ballots cast being cast by mail, either the legislature is pressured to act or there’s a citizen initiative. Arizona has already crossed that line; California is approaching it.

  4. James Hanley says:

    Oregon, of course, was the first. I’m proud to have been a resident when they went to this very sensible system. If trumwill dislikes vote-by-mail, we shall shun and denounce him.

  5. Michael Cain says:

    Once implemented, universal vote-by-mail is amazingly popular. At least off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything that polls as well among both Republicans and Democrats as “should we continue vote-by-mail”?

  6. lancifer666 says:

    James, are you also proud that Oregon just legislated automatic voter registration when you get a driver’s license?

    They register you whether you want to or not. Apparently there is a way to “opt out”, but they automatically register you to vote and send you a ballot a few weeks before each election.

  7. lancifer666 says:

    I think it says something about the Democrat party that they think that getting uninformed and apathetic voters to the polls will help get Democrats elected.

  8. James Hanley says:

    No, I don’t object to automatic voter registration. I object to obstacles that inhibit voting because voting is a right and I object to obstacles to the exercise of rights.* That is, I don’t think people should have to “earn” the right to exercise their right by jumping through hoops. North Dakota doesn’t even require voter registration–you show up with proper ID and you can vote, and they then automatically add you to their voter rolls. This is all very proper for a democracy. And nobody is required to vote just because they’re registered.

    *I’m torn, though on voter ID laws. I think it’s legitimate if necessary to deter election fraud. But 1) in that case the states need to make it very simple and low cost to obtain state ID, and 2) so far nobody’s been able to demonstrate that voting in place of others is an actual problem, so as I see it, while intrinsically legitimate, voter ID laws are a solution in search of a problem.

  9. lancifer666 says:

    Yeah, I don’t have a problem with automatic registration or even eliminating registration altogether. It just annoys me that Republicans feign outrage over nonexistent voter fraud to push voter ID laws and that Democrats feign outrage over “obstacles” to voting, when both of them are just looking out for their parochial interests.

  10. lancifer666 says:

    Oh, and I think the word “disenfranchised” should only be used to refer to McDonald’s owners that get caught making Big Macs with horse meat.

  11. Michael Cain says:

    Perhaps interestingly, the Colorado Senate with a one-seat Republican majority hasn’t made any effort to change the voting laws this session. Yeah, the effort would be wasted because Democratic House and Governor, but not even posturing. I suspect a combination of (a) every effort the Republican Sec of State has made in the last few years to “root out fraud” has blown up in his face, and (b) the county clerks’ association, heavily Republican because of all the small rural counties, got publicly pissed-off last year, saying they were damned tired of state-level Republicans accusing them of not knowing how to do their job.

  12. James Hanley says:

    “the county clerks’ association, heavily Republican because of all the small rural counties, got publicly pissed-off last year, saying they were damned tired of state-level Republicans accusing them of not knowing how to do their job.”

    The only thing that trumps ideology, perhaps, is personal status and self-interest. ;)

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