[Co-published at the Bawdy House]

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.

*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.

Category: Statehouse

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

  1. trumwill says:

    There was an intresting thing after the last election where it was suggested that the results didn’t count because of low turnout and that we should hear the voice of those who didn’t vote, too.

    I think this is better than that, and better than the notion advanced by some that Republicans thwart democracy by voting in large numbers in midterms, if only by a little.

    It seems to me that there are better ways to bump turnout, or try to. I am against aggressive mail-in voting and a bit skeptical of aggressive early voting, but they are options better than compulsory voting.

    There is the old saying that “If God wanted us to vote he would have given us candidates.” There is something particularly perverse about compulsory voting in elections with such limited selection. I’m not particularly favor in PR-advanced multiparty systems, but I’d consider either that (or an explicit None of the Above option) a requirement before I’d do anything less than loudly oppose compulsory voting.

    • MIchael Drew says:

      Who said the results didn’t count?

      • trumwill says:

        My standards and filters here are different than at other venues, including and especially OT, and are intended more lightly rather than trying to make a serious point.

        It’s not technically correct to say that people phrased it the way that I did, but I consider statements about how we need to count the voters who didn’t vote to be along these lines. Similarly a comment ACIS made suggesting that the disproportionate turnout was a flaw in the Republicans (bored and senile, or something to that effect) rather than the Democrats who didn’t come out, and seemed to put it in a bucket with gerrymandering as an unfair Republican advantage.

        These aren’t the only comments I’ve seen along these line. I don’t actually think they’re seriously meant – except for some serious arguments that we should do away with midterms – but I find them, and what can be (though do not have to be) inferred from them, humorous.

        My real-genuine view is that the two electorates issue will work itself out in time, and that it’s not worthwhile to talk about changing the entire system for what will ultimately be a temporary problem. (Gerrymandering, on the other hand, is a more permanent problem, so I more greatly understand wanting to address that.)

        • trumwill says:

          Also, I don’t consider any proposed change from the status quo odd. Suggesting that we go to the parliamentary system is a much more radical change, but it’s a change that makes sense to me. The same with getting rid of the senate, even though I would adamantly oppose doing so. Or Jesse Ewiak’s desire to get rid of the states except as basically administrative districts for the federal government. Disagree, but doesn’t seem odd.

          The “Let’s have a government in place for four years without elections in between so that congress and the president are put into place by the same electorates?” That seems odd to me. The sort of thing proposed largely due to current (and temporary) circumstances.

          (I should also add that when I say the “two electorates issue” I am referring specifically to the 2008-14 status quo. The gap between turnout levels will never close, but I think there will be party shifts that will reduce the partisan skew.)

        • MIchael Drew says:

          I might remember that comment from ACIS, not sure. He is pretty unconsidered all the time.

          I would certainly agree that it’s reasonable not to react so quickly to the emergence of the problem as we’re seeing it in the 2010-2015 period. I’m not demanding this happen this year; I’m just raising it for consideration.

          On the other hand, the problem doesn’t have to be seen as only that new. Presidents are always constrained from the outset by fear of the

          As for things getting better, as I say, i am content to wait and watch with this idea having been broached for a while. But there are reasons to be doubtful. Are the parties going to start ideologically un-sort themselves for some reason? I don’t know of a reason to expect that.

          More broadly, I think this reform can be seen as something of a holding action against the Juan Linz “presidential democracy is doomed” thesis. I’m not saying that thesis is right, but I do think that if it is right, then the mismatched electorates problem must exacerbate the problem, since the problem is ostensibly that the legislature and the executive are independently directly elected (which supports but isn’t necessary for separation of powers). If that thesis proves true, then in my view aligning the terms would buy us time to figure out if we wanted to go parliamentarian or what. If it’s not true, well, again, to my view the loss between two and four years is not that great anyway, and the advantage in clear lines accountability for performance in office outweigh the loss of the ability to rebuke a president halfway through every term, which in my view doesn’t do anything more than use generally deter the political risk taking that is necessary for effective governance.



        • MIchael Drew says:

          …by fear of the near-immediate electoral consequences of the midterms. To the extent that we see Congressional-presidential relations as dysfunctional and unproductive on a timeframe longer than just the last 5 years, which is I think a common view, I think it’s reasonable to think it relates to their having so little time to work together before having to face voters, and and to the fact that half the the they are elected n response to the perceived failures to do so in the short time allowed at the outset of a presidency.

    • MIchael Drew says:

      …And, people say that Republicans thwart democracy by participating in midterms? Who?? I want to know so I can yell at them.

  2. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    We will make you vote until you get it right!

    • trumwill says:

      The whole push towards saying that we shouldn’t have midterm elections because of the distorted electorate is odd.

      The new Republican method of thwarting democracy: Voting.

      • Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I think Obama is drinking his own kool-aid

      • MIchael Drew says:

        Did someone say that Republicans came up with midterm elections?

        If that’s all that’s odd about suggesting not having midterms, then maybe it’s not that odd. I mean, if they hadn’t been set up in 1788, but instead it had been provided that House, Senate, and President would all be elected on the same day every four years, today you would be saying it would be an odd proposal to propose 2,4, and 6 like we have.

        If we had roughly the same electorate turning out all the time, then I wouldn’t be raising the issue. But having a different electorate does make it hard to argue that, whereas “the electorate said this” in one year, “they changed their minds and said this other thing” two years later. The dynamics are such that the same people are not speaking.

        People can have whatever opinions about that they they want, of course. I just think it would be better if we didn’t have two such greatly different kinds of national elections, with the way voter engagement in them has evolved.. It only contributes to dysfunction in my view. I don’t think that’s somehow out of step with the vision of the Framers, as I don’t think they envisioned such a large split in engagement between presidential and non-presidential elections (nor did they envision an electorate consisting of people who weren’t the most empowered, asset-holding people in the country, thus most interested in the outcomes of elections, nor did they envision an electorate so much more interested in presidential elections than congressional elections).

        • Mad Rocket Scientist says:

          I think it is safe to say there is a lot the framers could not have envisioned. I mean, in their day & age, only old white landowners could vote.

        • trumwill says:

          That’s certainly true. And I think that there are some nips and tucks that really would be a good idea, well short of going parliamentary (which I would not necessarily oppose, if we maintained bicameralism) that strike me as a good idea. Michael mentions 2/4/6… one thing I would consider is is making that 2/4/4, so that every state has a senator up for election every cycle. Or alternately, having three senators per state to achieve the same goal if we want to keep 6-year terms.

          But trying to sync all congressional elections to presidential ones strike me as a manifestly bad idea. Two years (and I’m inclined to say three as well, with the increasing length and expense of campaigns) is too short for presidential terms, and fours years without the potential for a democratic correction is too long. Either of which resulting in something that is to me so obviously worse than the status quo that I find the suggestion “odd.”

        • MIchael Drew says:

          Four years as the unvarying period for democratic acceptability rather than two is certainly a tradeoff of the change I am proposing. It’s perfectly reasonable (not odd!) to find that too high a cost. It’s also perfectly reasonable (not odd!) not to. There was a time I thought the two-year cycle was important for democratic accountability; I now would view lengthening the cycle as a narrow win for democratic functionality in our system simply on its own merits. Two years is inherently more democratic, but I think that the modern conditions render the two-year cycle harmful to our system. Politicians are already so attuned to our whims through the power of media that I think a longer term in office would no longer represent such a great cost in democratic responsiveness.

        • MIchael Drew says:

          accountability, not acceptability.

          I guess if you’re not confirmed as against going parliamentary, that’s probably where we’d eventually settle (if you could). I thought you were so confirmed. I’m just thinking in terms of salvaging the system we have, mostly for reasons of sentiment and tradition, as much as anything else.

          If parliamentarianism(?) is on the table, I would probably take it. It provides the benefits of responsiveness without the dysfunctionality of the way we currently get that. Indeed, it’s even more responsive than semiannual elections, even if elections aren’t always that frequent. (They’re more frequent when necessary.)

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          Query: Has there been an attempt to limit the campaign season to something like 90 days prior to an election?

        • James Hanley says:


          There’s no way to do so. Campaigning is part of free speech, protected by the First Amendment. Even if a law limiting the date by which one could officially declare oneself a candidate could pass muster with the Supreme Court (which I can’t really believe could happen), a person could still unofficially run before that date.

          In fact that’s what’s been going on already. Ted Cruz may be the first to formally announce his candidacy, but he and others have been running since the previous presidential election, holding fund-raisers, talking to like-minded groups in various states, particularly Iowa and New Hampshire, the first states in the primary process, and trying to build a network of grass-roots supporters. None of that could really be prohibited by law.

          These long campaigns are just an artefact of our system. 1) We can know with exact certainty when the election will be, so people can figure out when they think they need to begin campaigning, and 2) we’re voting for a person instead of a party, so all the individual hopefuls are following the logic of campaigning early so they don’t get left behind. In a parliamentary system the precise election date isn’t usually known far in advance because the party in power calls an election when it’s a good time for them, or when they’re failing so badly they’re politically forced into it. And also people are normally voting for the particular party, which has internally chosen the person who will be the chief executive–the Prime Minster–if they win the election; so the individual campaigning in those systems is largely an internal affair, trying to win the support of one’s party members rather than the support of he public.

          I hope that’s clear; I dashed it off pretty quickly.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          Makes perfect sense, thanks James.

          I seem to recall previous attempts at controlling the campaign season going nowhere.

          Personally I just try to ignore all of it until about October 31.

        • Trumwill says:

          I’m (largely) against a parliamentary system with proportional representations and low thresholds so that it relies on coalitions. I mentioned that recently with regard to Israel, so maybe that’s what you’re thinking of.

          Some of this may become clearer if I ever write my WSA Constitutional Guidelines (what my recommendations would be if Michael Cain’s Western 11 ever split off). I haven’t had time to do the work on the WSA’s demographics and demographic trends. But I will actually recommend a bicameral parliamentary system. (However, I suspect that won’t fly, so I will probably proceed under the assumption of an independent executive.)

          I still don’t buy the advantages of four uninterrupted years coming close to outweighing the negatives, but I don’t feel like litigating it at this time.

          On a slightly different but still related subject, I go back and fourth on a six-year-single-term presidency (or five years). I honestly wonder sometimes at this point if four years with a significant chunk of that campaigning is enough. That assumes an independent executive, though.

        • MIchael Drew says:

          I don’t at all expect you to litigate it. I don’t even mind if you continue to call it odd! I’ll just continue to insist that it’s not.

    • trumwill says:

      Tangential, but one thing I don’t like about some (most?) parliamentary elections is the ability of the government to time elections to their own benefit.

  3. James Hanley says:

    Leave it to the Democrats to make “vote early, vote often,” not just a recommendation but mandatory.

  4. aaron david says:

    James, wouldn’t this be a first amendment violations? Also, all of the mealy mouth replies from the left this go-round really strengthen the idea (in my mind) of how far from the middle they have strayed.

    Also, the two year campaign doesn’t really bother me.

    • trumwill says:

      Some of those snap elections have too short a timespan, but ours lost its sanity. (I am still glad we don’t have a National Primary, however.)

      • aaron david says:

        It’s just one of the things that come with free speech. I’ll take the trade off…

        By the way Will, I really enjoy your blog! It’s a nice change of pace.

        • trumwill says:

          Thanks. I kind of think of it as my quiet little getaway sometimes.

          My biggest complaint with the elongated campaign season is primary creep. It makes sense for the primary season to be long because you’re often wading through a lot of untested candidates. It’s the part after the primaries reveal the victors and before the election that just takes forever. I don’t know what can be done about that, though, unless the parties take stiff action in concert. And even then…

        • Mad Rocket Scientist says:

          I just wish the primaries rotated. I get so sick of Iowa always being in the news every damn cycle.

        • aaron david says:

          Why do you hate corn, MRS?

        • Mad Rocket Scientist says:

          Oh Aaron, that is a long list (although corn is yummy, make no mistake).

    • James Hanley says:

      Some of my former students were discussing this on FB and they were also suggesting it’s a First Amdmt violation. I’ve not yet wrapped my head around that–I need someone to develop the argument more so I can pinpoint the strengths or weaknesses of it.

      • aaron david says:

        My basic thought is that voting is speech. Freedom to speak is also freedom to not speak.

        As an aside, it’s not that the non-voters are unaware that they can vote, it’s just that they choose indifference. So, in a way they are voting. Just not voting in a affirmative way.

  5. Vikram Bath says:

    If they want my vote, they will have to infer it from my dead body.

  6. ppnl says:

    Erm… I don’t think he called for mandatory voting. He did mention Australia has mandatory voting but only suggested that expanding the voting participation would be a good thing. That isn’t exactly a new position for the democrats.

    Just as well sense it is a political nonstarter even if it is constitutional.

    Over at “Bleeding Heart Libertarian” I think one of the posters favor some kind of test to qualify voters. He also seems to think politicians have a moral duty to “Lie Lie Lie” so…

  7. MIchael Drew says:

    In this short rumination Obama says

    1) that we should make it easier to vote and expand the franchise, not restrict it;

    2) that some countries actually make it compulsory to vote

    3) repeatedly talks about what would happen “if everybody voted,” which is something that passing a law saying they must would not achieve, which he surely knows, saying that it would be politically transformative

    4) again, that we should make it easier to vote and try to increase participation

    5) that this is a better strategy – trying to get more people (everybody!) to vote – for combatting the influence of money than… something else.

    By mentioning the countries where they do this, clearly Obama knew he would generate headlines suggesting he proposed mandatory voting. But as ppnl says, he didn’t. Why would he do that?

    It seems pretty clear to me that the point is to suggest that some countries go pretty far to encourage voting, in order to put in context whatever ideas we might come up with to do this.

    He wasn’t rejecting the idea of mandatory voting, but I think it’s a stretch to say on the basis of this short excerpt that making voting legally compulsory is “his solution, ” rather than “GOTV efforts, or to find ways to effectively combat voter suppression efforts”… or some other set of steps not yet identified.

    I would say that it’s an interesting question to consider in the overall voting wars debate whether, in general, efforts to adjust the law (lets say excluding mandatory voting, because there are many viable examples of it other than that) to expand voting (such as automatic registration, early voting, election day holiday proposals, etc.) should be seen just as much as efforts to “us[e] law to rig the vote” as efforts to use the law to restrict voting are. Are expanding and restricting voting equally legitimate and positive aims of law? Or should one perhaps enjoy greater presumption of democratic value than the other, understanding that partisan politicians will almost always have some degree of partisan motivation behind their positions on voting issues? (Which we have to accept at some level, since voting reforms/legal maintenance will always be necessary in a democracy to some degree or other, and politicians will always be attuned to the electoral ramifications of whatever adjustments must be or might be taken.)

    • ppnl says:

      Well Australia has compulsory voting as has been noted. Has their society been transformed into an enlightened society populated by beings of pure energy?

      The problem isn’t with people not voting. The problem is with why people aren’t voting. My solution is to do away with voting districts entirely and make the presidential election by popular vote.

      About as likely as compulsory voting.

      • James Hanley says:

        Spoken like a man who’s met Australians.

      • MIchael Drew says:

        “Has their society been transformed into an enlightened society populated by beings of pure energy?”

        Is this the standard for success you apply to any proposed reform? Why are you proposing it here? Far short of that standard, as compulsory voting even resulted in everybody voting in Australia? I’m sure it hasn’t.

        As I say, I don’t believe Obama thinks such a law would do that, either. Nor do I think he has proposed such a law. I think he used that as an Overton maneuver to point out that there is a lot more we could do to improve participation. I think the right critique is that it’s not at all clear he has any better ideas about exactly what those are than you or I do.

        But: maybe he’s proposing compulsory voting. I’d oppose that along with everyone else here.

        • trumwill says:

          FWIW, ppnl also said that Obama didn’t say that.

        • MIchael Drew says:

          Yes, as I credited him with. And so i didn’t quite get why the sharp point about it not being a panacea. (I’m sure he has his reasons!) But there it was, in response to my comment.

          I’m not sure I get what he’s saying. The problem isn’t with people not voting, it’s with why people are not voting… but to because it leads to them not voting? If we fix that, it would fix something other than people not voting (though it would fix that too), which we should care about more than people not voting? What is that thing?

          Also not sure what the proposal is. Popular election of the president wouldn’t require elimination of districts, it would require eliminating counting by state. I guess that’s two proposals, not two parts of one: 1) eliminate the EC; 2) make Senators and MHRs all at-large by state?

          I don’t think we have a hugely pressing low-turnout problem in presidential elections; as I’ve said many times, my problem is with the large split between presidential and midterms elections. So maybe we differ there. But I’l consider the one that would treat that: making House elections at-large would eliminate the problem of safe seats. And I think that would lessen apathy some. But I think disappointingly little. I don’t really think that’s where the action is. People already don’t turn out in midterms when a full chamber of the legislature is at stake via statewide elections. I don’t know that that would change by making the same true for both chambers. Maybe, but I think it’s really about whether there are presidential candidates on the ballot.

          It’s not a bad suggestion to address my particular concern, and I might be able to go for it. On this one I think I tend toward the geographical analogy to Will’s preference in the length of representation, though: I think the federal representation at geographic levels lower than the whole state is something not to give up on entirely. There is a substantive familiarity with the people being represented that is lost there that I don’t believe is lost by just having a longer term.

        • ppnl says:

          Jeez, lighten up dude it was a joke.

          I truly don’t think compulsory voting will help much until you address the reason people aren’t voting. Most of the people most of the time do not have a vote that matters. A democrat in Texas will have no effect on the presidential race even if the police frog marches him to vote. Worse, the fact that so many people have no voice alters the nature of the dialog.

          As for Australia I think they are currently repealing all their global warming legislation. Tony Abbott called global warming science “crap”. Maybe they are still better off but I wouldn’t really call it “transformative”. I know very little about the Australian system and can’t really say what effect compulsory voting has there. I will insist that the underlying federal system that divides and partitions the vote is more important than how many people vote.

  8. James Hanley says:

    MD, I left the OT to get away from a certain set of people and the resulting dynamics between us. This is Will’s blog, so I have no control over your commenting, but I will not engage with you.

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