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Sunday, February 12, 2023

Why Mandatory Voting Would Make Democracy Worse, Not Better

To enforce voting mandate an even more invasive government than Americans are faced with today.

Image Credit: iStock

The Washington state legislature currently has a mandatory voting proposal (S.B. 5209) under consideration, which would require registered voters to return ballots in each election. However, proponents try to soften the coerciveness of the proposal (which makes it very questionable in light of the First and Fourteenth Amendments) by saying it would allow citizens to opt out by filing a form with election officials or by not registering to vote. But in that case, they could not vote even if they decided they wanted to, which means it would not be long before the first voter suppression claims arise. People could also return a blank ballot to vote (which would “meet their civic duty,” according to the lead sponsor, Sen. Sam Hunt (D-Olympia), suggesting a very warped idea of civic duty). Further, there are no penalties for non-compliance, though one must wonder if the word “yet” should be appended to that claim. 

This is not the first proposal to adopt some version of mandatory voting. In fact, of late, it has been promoted much more visibly. For example, last year the Los Angeles Times, published Mark Barabak’s “What if every American were required–by law–to vote?”, which touted E.J. Dionne and Miles Rapoport’s book, 100% Democracy; The Case for Universal Voting, in favor of “mandatory attendance at the polls.” 

Those writers are worth attention as a way to focus on some of the issues involved. Barabak led off his article by claiming a major benefit of mandatory voting would be “No lame excuses,” like “all politicians are the same,” or “one persons’ vote really doesn’t matter.” But those are not lame claims. They are strong ones.

As to the first “lame excuse,” it is obvious that all politicians are not the same in every way. But name the politicians who do not consider robbing Peter to pay Paul to be a major part of the “portfolio” of their duties. I cannot see my way to vote for any such people to supposedly represent me.

I line up more with Leonard Read, The Foundation for Economic Education’s founder, on this score. In his most famous book, Anything That’s Peaceful, he called such politicians trimmers.

“A trimmer…trims his personal idea of what is morally right…Integrity is sacrificed to expediency.” And many times, all the choices are trimmers, where “one candidate will stand for the coercive expropriation of the earned income of all citizens…to those in groups A, B, and C…his opponent differs from him only in advocating that the loot be given to those in groups X, Y, and Z.” In that case, “Does responsible citizenship require casting a ballot for either of these political plunderers” which “does as much as one can with a ballot to encourage other trimmers to run for office.” In fact, “When one must choose between men who forsake integrity…there is little relief at the polling level except as candidates of integrity may be encouraged by voters of integrity.” 

Consider also how lame rejecting that “one person’s vote really doesn’t matter” really is. As Michael Barone once wrote, “A very few votes can make a big, big difference.” As proof, he cited a few close elections, the smallest margin being George W. Bush’s 537-vote Florida margin in the Presidential election. Unfortunately, when the closest election that could be found was decided by more than 500 votes, that does not support the conclusion that any individual’s choice of whether to vote or who to vote for makes a big difference. It implies the opposite. Your vote will make no difference in the outcome, whether you voted for the winner, a loser, or no one. And that means that it is not “one person’s vote really doesn’t matter” that is lame, but the cornucopia of invalid “get out the vote” assertions Americans hear every even-numbered year.

Reflect on other commonplace rejoinders to wondering whether one really must vote, as well. 

“If you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice in government.” The fact is, casting your vote won’t give you an effective voice in government any more than abstaining from voting refutes that claim.

“If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about government.” This argument fails for the same reason. It also overlooks that facing what are typically binary choices between candidates further degrades anyone’s ability to clearly invoke their preferences by voting.

“If you don’t vote, you don’t care about America.” Again, this is unconvincing when your vote doesn’t alter the outcome. In addition, not only has abstaining been common since America’s foundation, but not voting is perhaps the most effective way to protest that “none of the above” represent what you consider acceptable, because voting for “the lesser of two evils” is still voting for an evil.

“It is your duty to vote.” Doing something that changes nothing cannot be your social duty, if that phrase is intended to mean it would benefit society. Further, most voters are far from informed on most issues, and casting an uninformed vote is more a dereliction of duty than a fulfillment of it. As George Mason law professor Ilya Somin wrote, “When relatively ignorant voters go to the polls, they aren’t doing the rest of society a favor.” Far from it. “They are instead inflicting harm on us by making poor choices and incentivizing politicians to cater to their ignorance.”

“You must vote, because the electoral process would collapse if no one voted.” This ignores that in addition to your individual vote not changing the outcome, virtually no one’s else’s individual choice of whether to and/or how to vote alters an appreciable number of others’ voting choices. (Politicians, who won’t be taken seriously if they abstain from voting, may be an exception.)

Barabak makes some further unforced errors on behalf of mandatory voting as well. He cites Dionne’s “fancy dinner party,” analogy to make the case for mandating that those who are “habitually inattentive” all vote, even though such inattentiveness virtually eliminates the likelihood that their votes will advance sensible policy for all Americans. The ensuing claim that parties would then appeal to all voters in an “extremely healthy” way also ignores the fact that those appeals will be to people who are even easier to lie and misrepresent things to than current voters.

To enforce what is proposed would also mandate an even more invasive government than Americans are faced with today. It would grant expanded coercive powers that can extend to deciding who has “genuinely sincere reasons to refuse to vote,” as well as to imposing fines or mandatory service, which also opens the door to a very slippery slope of potential future abuses. 

Does the fact that so many “your vote is crucially important” arguments are logically invalid imply you shouldn’t vote? While it doesn’t imply that you should be forced to vote, it doesn’t require you to refrain from voting, either. But it doesn’t justify voting on issues you are uninformed about, since that offers society additional ignorant white noise rather than benefits. Further, since your electorally insignificant vote won’t change the outcome, it also means that trying to strategically vote to forcibly transfer others’ wealth to you or your pet causes is ineffective, as well as morally objectionable.

However, if such errors are avoided, voting can provide a means of cheering for those candidates and proposals that advance what James Madison called “the general and permanent good of the whole” without plundering others. So, while logic and integrity do not demand that you vote, they do impose limits on what one can justifiably vote for. And recognizing what we can do ourselves without invoking the coercive power of government would be a far better reform than mandatory voting for members of governments whose tentacles reach everywhere.


  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).