WASHINGTON, March 24, 2015 — In a seemingly off-the-cuff comment last week, President Barack Obama called the concept of mandatory voting a potentially “transformative” factor for future elections.
The president kicked off a provocative discussion. The idea has excited left-leaning activists, who subscribe to the conventional wisdom that Republicans owe their successes in 2010 and 2014 to lower turnout.
There’s no doubt that turnout declines in mid-term elections; in 2014 was a dismal 36 percent. By requiring participation, proponents argue, election results would more closely reflect the choices of the full population.
But what problem would such a requirement solve?
The data suggests that higher turnout would not make much difference in actual results. The Washington Post pointed out that apathy cuts across party lines — non-voting block has a similar partisan breakdown to the voting population. And, notably, very few elections during the 2014 cycle were close. There will be more on that later.
Before trying to solve a problem, it makes sense to understand the problem. Beyond the relatively simple math of voter turnout are specific reasons people choose not to vote.
Two-thirds of the respondents to Pew Research’s post-election poll gave time as the reason, citing work or school commitments. Self-diagnosis can be tricky, though. Survey participants may have said that work, school, or other obligations kept them away from the ballot box, but what they really mean is that voting was not important enough for them to either get up early or duck out of work for an hour to pull the lever. They aren’t saying they didn’t have time, but that they didn’t make time.
Participation activists might chalk these up as excuses of convenience easily fixed with mandatory voting. Surely, a voting requirement would drive registered voters to make allowances for their daily schedules. After all, there are plenty of reasons to avoid the Department of Motor Vehicles, but just about everyone finds themselves there at some point.
But the deeper question is: Why aren’t people making time to vote?
One answer may be competitiveness: Voter participation tends to be higher in more hotly contested races. Targeted Senate states — especially Alaska (53.8 percent), Colorado (53.4 percent), Iowa (49.7 percent) and Maine (58 percent) — generally performed ahead of the national average. So did Wisconsin (56.5 percent), where organized labor fought like mad to oust Gov. Scott Walker. While many of these states didn’t approach their 2012 presidential election-level turnout numbers, they clearly demonstrated that more active campaigns mean more active voters.
This underscores an important aspect of American democracy that is critical for understanding voter turnout: People want to be a part of meaningful collective action. When people don’t vote, it’s probably because they don’t feel informed and engaged.
The relatively easy (or at least unimaginative) solution is to pass a law mandating that a citizen show up to the polls on a certain day and pull a lever or mark a box. It is dramatically more difficult to identify the causes behind the low numbers and still more difficult to fix them. The idea of mandatory voting glosses over the problems, but does nothing to improve democracy.
The first way to meaningfully improve voter participation is giving voters something worth participating in. Run good grassroots campaigns. Focus on identifying and turning out your voters. Be genuine in your messaging and thorough in your execution.
If everyone on every side did this, voter participation would increase.
It might not be enough to completely solve the issue of low turnout, but it would be a better start than simply forcing voters to show up.