The Democratic Argument for Compulsory Voting—by Simon Liem (Harper’s Magazine)
In an essay selected for the Readings section of our October issue, Victoria Bassetti writes about the lack of constitutional protection for voting—an important issue right now, as some states have passed voter-identification laws that civil-rights groups believe could discourage millions of people from voting in the upcoming general election. Since 2003, Republican lawmakers in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and a handful of other states have passed laws that require voters to present photo identification at polling stations to cast a ballot, with the stated aim of preventing voter-impersonation fraud, and the actual aim of placing obstacles to voting in front of poor people and minorities, who happen to traditionally support Democrats.
Even without such efforts, turnout will be abysmally low, as it always is. Presidential-election voting peaked in the twentieth century in 1960, when nearly two-thirds of eligible voters came out to the polls, and reached its nadir in 1996, when just over half did. The most recent two presidential elections were better, with each turning out over 60 percent, but the most recent midterm elections managed only 40. Given that it has become a struggle to get half of Americans to the polls, it’s quite incredible that anyone would do anything to discourage voting.
This has become a particular problem for Democrats, who, if they were wise, would be targeting nonvoters with more than just get-out-the-vote drives. In August, a USA Today/Suffolk University poll showed that unregistered voters, if they had to choose, would pick Obama over Romney at a rate of nearly two to one, while registered voters who said they weren’t sure if they would cast a ballot also heavily favored Obama. The pool of 90 to 95 million nonvoters represent a significant missed opportunity for Democrats, one they might someday capitalize on by pushing to aggressively reform voting laws around the country, a strategic goal that happens to coincide with increased participation in the democratic process. Allowing same-day registration and a variety of acceptable identifications at the voting booths helped Minnesota achieve the highest turnout of any state in the 2008 presidential election, at 77 percent, while Democrats in California have passed laws that allow for online registration in the upcoming election, resulting in promising early numbers. But to really push people to the polls would require much more.