Should the US government force citizens to vote?

At a town hall meeting in Cleveland, President Obama floated the idea of compulsory voting in the United States. Is that a good idea?

Ted S. Warren/AP/File
A 14-month-old child checks out an empty voting booth as at her mother votes at left, on Election Day 2014, at the Alaska Zoo polling place in Anchorage, Alaska.

On Wednesday during a town hall meeting in Cleveland, Ohio President Barack Obama floated the idea of making voting in America compulsory. The deputy secretary of State for New Hampshire, the front-line state for presidential elections, doesn't endorse the concept.

Mr. Obama suggested compulsory voting in the context of speaking about ways to counteract the role of money in politics.

"It would be transformative if everybody voted," Obama said. 

"That would counteract money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country, because the people who tend not to vote are young; they're lower income; they're skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups; and they're often the folks who are – they're scratching and climbing to get into the middle class. And they're working hard, and there’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.  We should want to get them into the polls."

[Update: On Thursday afternoon, White House press secretary Josh Earnest issued this statement about mandatory voting: “The president was not making a specific policy prescription for the United States,” reported the Washington Times. ]

The state with the motto “Live free or die,” where all eyes turn during the presidential primaries, would be on the front lines for implementation of any such plan. But to New Hampshire’s Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan voting is “a right to be exercised, but not forced.”

“Personally, I don’t agree with that idea [compulsory voting] at all,” Mr. Scanlan says. “In a perfect world everyone would vote because it’s so important. I believe every state should strive to generate maximum voter turnout but stop short of forcing people to vote.”

Many Twitter users appear to be in a voting bloc with Scanlan on this issue.

In effect, mandatory voting, Scanlan says, would involve “creating a whole new bureaucracy or adding to one that already exists.”

In the 2014 general election, voter turnout reached a 70-year-low, with less than 36 percent of eligible voters casting ballots on Election Day, according to data from the United States Election Project. 

Jim AllenChicago Board of Elections spokesman says the City of Chicago "is all about turnout" but adds, "You'd need a reliable list of all the eligible voters with addresses that's constantly updated. Can somebody please tell me where that list is?"

"Maybe, maybe, if you had some kind of authoritarian system in place where you knew were everyone is all the time, nobody could move without permission or registering, you'd have a chance," Mr. Allen says. 

The president pointed out that voting is mandatory in other countries, and cited Australia. At least 26 nations have compulsory voting, according to data from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Australia has compulsory voting and a look at that system yields some notion of what the cost to states and municipalities might look like should Mr. Obama’s suggestion take root.

According to the Australian Electoral Commission website, under federal electoral law, it is compulsory for all eligible Australian citizens to enroll and vote in federal elections, by-elections and referendums.

“After each election, the AEC will send a letter to all apparent non-voters requesting that they either provide a valid and sufficient reason for failing to vote or pay a $20 penalty,” according to the website. “If, within the time period specified on the notice, you fail to reply, cannot provide a valid and sufficient reason or decline to pay the $20 penalty, then the matter may be referred to a court. If the matter is dealt with in court and you are found guilty, you may be fined up to $170 plus court costs and a criminal conviction may be recorded against you.”

Allen adds, "Two questions to answer: If you're for mandatory voting, does this mean you get back a bunch of blank ballots? 'There. I voted.' Also, how does this affect our right to free speech, which includes the right not to speak. Don't we, as Americans have the right to remain silent?"

For its part, New Hampshire is exempt from the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NRVA) which was designed to make it easier for voters to register and maintain their voter status by mail, which amounts to third-party registration.

“Here our voters must register in person, on election day at their local municipality, with no third-party registration allowed,” Scanlan explains. “Thanks to rigorous voter education we’re a top-tier voter registration and voter turnout state.”

Scanlan adds, “We take voter turnout and election procedures very seriously here. We’re under a microscope before and during the presidential primaries and that would put us right on the front line for a change like the one the president proposed. Honestly, I’m not sure that even here it would be enforceable.”

Scanlan concludes, “As a result of tremendous efforts on voter education we have very few who choose not to vote here and those who don’t vote have their personal reasons. They should not be forced to vote, if they choose otherwise.”

Allen says that while his job is in Chicago, it is a quote he once heard uttered by an elderly woman speaking to a TV reporter during a presidential primary in New Hampshire decades ago that guides his opinion in this matter today.

"The old woman in New Hampshire shocks a reporter by says she doesn't vote," Allen recalls. "So the TV reporter asked her why she doesn't vote. The old woman said, 'It only encourages them.' "

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