Compulsory voting in the United States is an idea that has been relatively thrown around in politics for at least a decade or so. It is fundamentally the idea that something or someone should be compelling citizens in a sovereign state to vote by use of force or fine. There are a lot of questions that need answers before one can even begin to discuss this as viable legislation; what is the compulsion, who is compelling it and are we sure we want to give the parties whom it may concern the ability to compel action?
The first question needing an answer is, “who would be compelling the action?” We need to thoroughly understand who would hold the power to compel action from their citizens. Most other compulsory voting regulations are held by the government, and no other institution has the capacity or influence to be able to compel voting. The United States government does not have very many laws that compel action, aside from signing up for the draft at the age of 18. Broadly, the laws are more centered around what you are not allowed to do rather than what you are forced to do.
The second question to address is what the consequences should be when people do not vote. What is the compulsion? Australia, for example, has some compelled voting legislation that makes you face fines or jail time as a consequence of not voting. The aim was to create a more politically engaged population, and this has worked so far in the sense that people vote more. It is foreseeable that people are not truly engaged with their political system but instead vote as to avoid the consequences of not voting. This is a troubling debate in Australian politics and begs the question of whether active voters are synonymous with engaged voters. America could very well inculcate a system of voting similar to Australia and increase participation in the political system.
Allowing the government authority to compel anything is something that should broadly be kept away from. Once you allow the government the ability to compel speech or action by any means, the line begins to blur as to when the government does not have a right to do so. A population subjugates itself to a debate regarding whether rights are government appointed or whether rights are held within the sovereign individual. The argument is not, “should the government have the right to compel our voting?” but instead, “Why should we not have the right to refuse to vote?” Rights are something that humans possess due to intrinsic value of being, and we can choose to give our rights up for certain societal freedoms.
The political science perspective refers to this as “freedom from” and “freedom to” dichotomy. “Freedom from” is essentially things in society we are not allowed to do. Ideally, we have a freedom from assault, murder and vandalism. This means we give our right to assault, murder, and vandalize to be safe from these things happening to us. “Freedom to,” is the opposite, which is what we are permitted to do. We have the freedom to go to the movies, run in a circle and politically engage if we choose to. However, a freedom to is not obligatory. Essentially what happens with nations who develop compelled voting legislation is they choose to have a freedom from a refusal to vote which means everyone is at least politically active.
One main issue with the idea is exactly the debate occurring in Australia, which is whether or not active voters are the same as engaged voters. I would argue active is not necessarily engaged, and also not every inactive voter is bad. For example, I had a family friend growing up who refused to vote in an election because he claimed he was not educated enough on the candidates at the time to be able to confidently form a vote. He said he did not have the time to research between work, school, kids, etc.
Fundamentally, not voting is as much of a right as voting. If the government were to compel voting, then the conversation is not about rights anymore. It is compelled, forced by the government and no one has a right to do anything except vote which is not a choice. In addition, what are the parameters for what we should allow the government to compel or not compel? Without these parameters concretely identified we risk a boundless governing force that has the power to control tyrannically as North Korea or Russia does.