Against Mandatory Voting Essay

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Days before Election Day we can’t know who will win the presidency. But we can know with near certainty that voter turnout will be abysmal and that the results will be not so much a mandate as a skewed sampling of about half the electorate.

Many reforms could increase turnout, from same-day registration to voting on weekends. But the most basic is also the most appropriate: making voting mandatory. Here’s why.

Mandatory voting would make elections truly valid. “Protecting the integrity of our elections” is the rationale Republicans give for the cynically restrictive voter ID laws they’ve enacted in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. But if we truly cared about the integrity of elections, we should ensure that they reflect the will of all eligible
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(Conventional wisdom says the more people who vote, the worse the GOP does). But if a tactic of disenfranchisement and electorate-amputation makes sense for the party (which is debatable), it is terrible for the country. As former director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orzsag has pointed out, we can’t know what the ultimate partisan impact would be. One day Republicans could benefit.

The most visceral critique is that mandating voting is just un-American. Yet jury duty, the draft, going to school, and taxpaying all have been compulsory without being called communist (OK, three out of four). At issue is what makes something American — and what makes liberty liberty. The Revolution and the framing of the Constitution were not about the right merely to be let alone or to do whatever one pleased. They were about our liberty to govern and represent ourselves. Core to that liberty is electing representatives and voting on public issues.

That is why the best reason for mandatory voting has nothing to do with today’s politics. It’s about redeeming the central promise of American citizenship. Generations marched, fought and died for the right to vote. The least we can do now is treat that right like a responsibility.

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