Compulsory voting won't help civic engagement

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Students line up on Guadalupe to vote in the 2008 presidential election. A proposed Texas voter ID law that would have required voters to present a government-issued form of identification in this years election was denied by a U.S. District Court yesterday. (Daily Texan file photo)

Photo Credit: Debbie Finley | Daily Texan Staff

Tomorrow is Election Day. Will you be voting?

If you choose not to, you’ll likely have company; off-year elections are notorious for low voter turnout. According to FairVote.org, turnout for the last mayoral election in Austin was only 7 percent, and tomorrow will probably be even worse since there isn’t much on the ballot: just a special election to fill Mark Strama’s vacated Texas House seat — he is leaving to lead Austin’s Google Fiber project — along with nine proposed state constitutional amendments and an affordable housing bond for the city. Even though the housing bond could have implications for those of us struggling to find an affordable place to live in Austin, the total absence of any major state or federal race on the ballot makes this election nearly irrelevant to the average UT student. 

Nevertheless, rest assured that you’ll probably be hearing the old it’s-your-duty-to-vote lecture from that one civically-engaged government major that you know. Whether you see it on your Facebook news feed or overhear it in class, you’re bound to hear at least one person tell you that you really need to stop being so apathetic and go vote.

Usually, I am that civically-engaged government major nagging my friends to vote, and I probably will be at the polls tomorrow, despite the low profile of the 11 issues on the ballot. However, this off-year election dilemma got me thinking about a broader question: What would happen if we were all required to vote? After all, it’s not out of the question that Congress could pass a law that made voting mandatory; Australia, Brazil, Argentina and Peru all have compulsory voting laws. And if it truly were our civic duty and responsibility to vote, wouldn’t it make sense to require it by law?

I sat down with Brian Roberts, a professor of government, geography and economics, to talk about compulsory voting, and he began with an analogy: Right now, there is no law against burning the American flag. As a result, your decision to not burn the flag could be seen as a sign of national pride or patriotism. But “if there were a law that forbade me from burning the American flag, and I don’t burn the flag,” Roberts explained, “you don’t know if it’s because I’m afraid of going to jail, or because I have some pride in my country. I would much rather be in a situation where my act of not burning the flag actually means something.”

Voting works the same way. Since it isn’t currently required, voting, as Roberts put it, is “a very clear statement of civic pride and faith in the system.” Would we want a situation where voting loses its patriotic and political significance, in which people only vote because they are scared of going to jail?

Voting is a powerful signal that can show how invested an individual is in the government. But the implications of that signal can go far beyond one individual’s faith in government. Voter turnout statistics can be a powerful tool to evaluate an entire nation’s relationship with its government, and we often do judge “the health of a democracy by its level of participation” in elections, as Roberts explained.

For example, in the 1976 Supreme Court case “Buckley v. Valeo,” the court suggested that the level of participation in elections could be used to measure public trust in government. The case was a challenge to laws governing campaign finance — who could give money to federal candidates and how much they could give — and one of the dominant themes of the per curiam opinion was that the government had a compelling interest in preventing the appearance of corruption in politics. The reason it was important to curtail the appearance of such impropriety, according to the opinion, was to make sure that “confidence in the system of … Government is not to be eroded to a disastrous extent.” And how would we measure confidence in the system? Through participation in elections or voter turnout.

But compulsory voting turns an essential tool into a worthless statistic. According to Roberts, it’s a “call to arms” when voting levels are low; it indicates that something is wrong. But requiring voting does not solve the underlying problem that is causing low turnout. By passing a compulsory voting law, Roberts contended that you simply “wash your hands of [the problem]. And then you take away the signal. How now will you judge the health of our democracy if you’ve got no real way to figure out whether people buy into the system or not? Why would we expect any efforts to reform or change?”

In other words, low voter turnout can help to illuminate problems in our democratic system; compulsory voting would make it difficult to recognize and respond to those same problems that we are trying to solve.

Granted, no one is currently suggesting that we should make it a crime not to vote. But when we criticize each other for not participating in the democratic process, we should think about the logical conclusion of that argument, that participation in elections should be mandatory. It is definitely our right to vote — it’s a right that we should be proud and thankful to have. But compulsory voting is not the solution to our democracy’s problems.

By all means, go out and vote tomorrow. However, if someone tells you they aren’t voting, let them not vote. It might just be in our best interest if we ever want to solve our government’s many problems.

Nikolaides is a government and Spanish senior from Cincinnati.