Mandatory Voting and Automatic Registration

Oregon is moving to automatic voter registration, and President Obama has mentioned, in the context of making it easier to vote in the United States, that some countries have compulsory voting (as far as I can tell he didn’t actually call for it here, just for better access to voting).

But we have a host of issues around voting, including candidate ballot access and gerrymandering. How much difference would a 10% increase in turnout across the board make versus some other change like moving to a preferential, ranked-voting system?

Like anything in politics, these issues are complicated. They are complicated to study, and even more complicated when you look at what is politically possible at various levels of government. You basically have to either have a hegemony that favors a better system (i.e., puts the true interest of the system at-large ahead of any naïve self-interest) or an idea that sells so well that it cannot be denied by the powerful.

Ideas abound, but few get sold, and it’s a non-market.

A few things are clear enough. Simply enfranchising a group isn’t sufficient to change politics. Non-land-owners, black people, women, and 18-20-year-olds all got their voting rights late, but it did not significantly change the political system directly. Interesting that the Civil Rights Movement did cause a major political shift, but not from voting. Its mere enactment was the mover.

If everyone did vote, or at least if every demographic voted in proportion to their population, it would change things a lot. But that’s exactly why Republicans fear expanding voter access. Of course, a mere political shift on their part would make them a much more popular party, but they’re afraid it would scare away donors.

Could compulsory voting help? The first bar is its chances of being enacted. They are slim, and even slimmer if such a change would require Constitutional amendment. More likely is a system like Oregon is moving to, and Oregon will give some evidence in the future.

It’s clear that their existing vote-by-mail system does improve turnout, so while expanding their rolls by 10% or so will probably see increased turnout, it is unlikely to raise the percentage of registered voters who vote.

Compulsory voting with fines for failing to vote likely would. A lottery system (where you would be entered to win a monetary prize if you voted) might work, too. But the horizon does not show these coming to America. Right now the best hope for expanding access is vote-by-mail expanding beyond the few states like Oregon who have it or something like it (open absentee processes).