In 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Voting is the basis of any government that styles itself as a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” But how can we claim that to be true if we don’t even vote? Voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections has been between 50 and 60 percent for over a century. This leads to polarized policies that politicians have designed to appease only the people who turn up and vote for them. But if we made voting mandatory, then surely, we could strengthen our democracy by drowning out the voices of the usually small minority that often ends up controlling leadership and policy decisions.
For example, take Australia. Since the country has enacted mandatory voting, voting rates have soared from 47 percent to over 80 percent of the eligible population (while the other 20 percent had to pay fines). The Australian system has elevated the political dialogue amongst the people and the politicians. That’s because politicians craft policies that are designed to be inclusive and broad. Politicians know that since people will inevitably have to vote for someone, alienating policies will result in votes for their rivals. Not a smart choice in a compulsory, secret ballot.
Another benefit is minimizing political polarization in the U.S. It is argued that low turnout enables hard-core partisans and ideologues to dominate elections. “If the full range of voters actually voted, our political leaders, who are exquisitely attuned followers, would go where the votes are: away from the extremes,” Eric Liu of TIME explains.
If states would compel their citizens to vote, it would ensure that everyone had the means to take part in elections. Purging voting rolls, early voting, and prematurely closing polling stations are all practices that are inherently undemocratic to voters. Mandatory voting would decrease voter suppression in the electoral process. That’s because the burden is on the citizen, not the state, to ensure that they show up to participate.
We are a republic, as long as we can keep it. Now maybe this is the time to reclaim it!