Money in politics is a problem. The failure of elected representatives to act according to the needs of their constituents is a problem. Low voter turnout is a problem. Easing voting access for underrepresented populations is an even bigger problem.
The issues with our current democratic system are well known, but they persist. During a town hall meeting in Cleveland on Wednesday, President Obama proposed a solution. “Other countries have mandatory voting,” he said. “It would be transformative if everybody voted -- that would counteract money more than anything.”
Mandatory voting is an interesting idea, but in modern day United States it’s missing the point. Forcing people to choose between two or three candidates won’t necessarily “counteract money” as Obama suggests. The politicians will still have to have the time and money to run a campaign, and they’ll still be entwined with lobbyists and special interest groups once they get to Washington.
If mandatory voting could accomplish anything in the U.S., it would help end the restrictions that have historically been placed on the country’s disadvantaged populations. From voter suppression during the Jim Crow era to modern voter ID laws, those in power have always tried to keep the majority of the population from unseating them. “The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups,” Obama said. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.”
Mandatory voting would be a major civil rights achievement, but forced participation is not the answer to meeting the needs of America’s citizens. The core concept of democracy is that it’s every citizen’s duty to participate, but that participation has always been voluntary. Women, African-Americans and other disenfranchised groups struggled for years to gain the right to vote, but the right to vote is meaningless if the people you’re forced to choose between aren’t actually going to change anything or work in your favor. (I refer anyone who disagrees to the “Douche and Turd” episode of South Park.)
Mandatory voting shouldn’t be compared to mandatory health insurance, but it inevitably will be. Just as some religious groups don’t participate in modern medicine, some groups don’t want to be a part of the political process. Some people just don’t want to vote. The uninsured health care rate was down to 13.4 percent in 2014. That same year, less than 37 percent of eligible voters participated in the midterm elections. The lines are obviously blurred, but it’s likely that people choose not to vote (because it’s an inconvenience or perceived waste of time) more so than they choose not to have health insurance. The right to health care and the right to vote should both be guaranteed to all citizens, but voting is a voluntary action. Every citizen needs health care.
The United States is in the minority when it comes to health care coverage, but its voluntary voting policies are more in line with the rest of the world. There are currently 11 countries with actively enforced mandatory voting policies. An additional 10 countries have compulsory voting laws in place. No country has established a compulsory voting law since 1965, but Chile, Italy, Fiji and Venezuela have all abolished versions of the law since the 1990s.
Considering all of its benefits, mandatory voting isn’t something that should be actively fought against. If the government decides to create legislation encouraging increased participation in the democratic process, then the people should use the opportunity to have their wants and needs better represented in Washington. But it’s also far from an answer to the problems the United States has with money and representation in politics. Obama’s claim that mandatory voting would “counteract money more than anything” is misguided. It won’t stop candidates and special interest groups from pouring money into politics, and it won’t stop people from voting simply based on the party with which they most identify. It’s an interesting idea, but not one that should be expected to solve any of the important issues the country needs to be focusing on.