Voting Shouldn't Be Mandatory, but It Should Be Easier

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Dr. Peter Hanson
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Dr. Peter Hanson

COMMENTARY | Lori Jo Miller Farr offers several interesting ideas to improve American elections, and I appreciate the chance to share my thoughts about them.

The case for making voting as easy as possible is strong. The United States requires its citizens to jump through more hoops to vote than other countries and this depresses turnout. For example, our population is mobile but Americans must re-register to vote each time they move. Inevitably, some people who want to vote fail to re-register in time and are unable to cast a ballot. Simple reforms such as allowing people to register on Election Day would help more citizens to participate in our democracy.

Mandatory voting is less appealing. On the pro side, it might make our pool of voters a better reflection of our actual population. People who are poor, young or minority face barriers that make them less likely to vote. Requiring everyone to vote might reduce this disparity and ensure that all parts of society are heard more equally.

Other Americans could vote but choose not to. Many aren’t interested in politics and are poorly informed about the issues. It’s unlikely that our country will elect better leaders or make improved policy choices by compelling this group to vote. A better solution might be to make voting as easy as possible, while still leaving it up to individuals (with the encouragement of campaigns, who work hard to mobilize the population) to make the decision on their own.

The second proposal is to abolish the electoral college in favor of a national popular election. The best reason to do so is that the electoral college fails to weigh the votes of all Americans equally. Small states carry greater weight than large states. Another problem is that a candidate could win the presidency despite losing the popular vote, raising questions about the legitimacy of the election.

I’m not as persuaded by the concern that a vote cast in a “safe” state like California doesn’t matter. California’s votes are predictable but still a critical part of a path to 270 electoral votes and winning the presidency. Still, today’s “safe” states would likely see more campaigning if candidates had to win the national popular vote. They might also see more attention paid to their unique policy needs.

Democracies are a work in progress. While reforms need to be carefully studied to avoid unintended consequences, promoting broad participation and ensuring that election results reflect the choices of the people are both vital to the continued health of our system.

Peter Hanson is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver. He was a legislative assistant to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and is currently completing a book on the Senate.

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