Obama Was Right. Mandatory Voting Is the Future

Yes, the Supreme Court's ruling Monday was garbage. But keep your eyes on the prize.

Critical reaction to the US Supreme Court’s ruling Monday was not what I had hoped for. The opposite, in fact. Instead of rethinking ways to solve the problem, many liberals are doubling down, perhaps because they don’t know what the real problem is.

The Supreme Court decided, in a 5-4 conservative ruling, to uphold an Ohio law that erases names from voter rolls if registrants have not voted during a certain period of time. “After skipping a single federal election cycle, voters are sent a notice,” according to the New York Times’ Adam Liptak. “If they fail to respond and do not vote in the next four years, their names are purged from the rolls.”

The effect of the ruling is clear.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her individual dissent, said that Ohio’s purge law is part of “concerted state efforts to prevent minorities from voting and to undermine the efficacy of their votes” that were “an unfortunate feature of our country’s history.”

There’s a lot to say about the conservative justices’ legal reasoning, but I’ll leave that to scholars. (I recommend reading the superlative Garrett Epps. “Whenever a court claims to be engaged in policy-free statutory interpretation, check your wallet. Sometimes the claim is true; but more often than not, somebody’s getting robbed.”) For my part, I’d like to concentrate on what can be done politically to combat an agenda that explicitly seeks to shrink, rather than expand, the American franchise.

Bear in mind that voting and registering to vote are two things. Confusing them is understandable. Our laws, habits and traditions tend to blur the line between them. But they are different. You could argue that the high court’s ruling Monday is more about a state’s right to manage voter registration, less about the right to vote.

To be sure, you must register to vote in most states. But this is not a constitutional requirement. Registration is merely what most states have decided to do for reasons good and bad (I presume). My point is that voter registration is the mechanism by which most states regulate the right to vote in democratic elections. That mechanism isn’t set in stone. Indeed, it’s part of the larger problem, which is that most people most of the time do not vote. Registration does not translate into voting.

An idea to increase turnout is called automatic registration. That’s when the state registers you by default, but allows you to opt out. Such a reform might turn out a few more voters, but, again, registration is a poor indicator of whether people actually vote. Hard as it is to say about the American people, it’s simply easier not to vote. Hence, the reason for our historically abysmal turnout. 2012 saw the highest recent turnout—about 58 percent. Some 235,248,000 people are voting age in the US.

Voting by mail is another idea. So is Election Day on the weekend. Both would get around transportation, long lines, busy work schedules and other obstacles to voting. But I think we can reduce barriers to zero and still see scandalous turnout, because—again, sad to say—the US does not have a robust culture of civic responsibility.

So in light of this garbage ruling from the US Supreme Court that clearly inhibits voting, now’s a good time for liberals and small-d democrats to debate the merits of mandatory voting: laws requiring voting-age citizens to vote, or pay a fine.

Now, mandatory voting is slightly misnamed. No one can prove that you voted or not, because of secret balloting. The “mandatory” part means merely that you are required to show up at a polling place. That might sound like the makings of an argument against mandatory voting, but it isn’t. The fact that you showed up means you are highly likely to vote. That’s why it works in places like Australia and Greece.

The last time mandatory voting got any attention at all was in 2015 when President Barack Obama mentioned it offhand. “If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country,” he said. “It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything.”

Why? Because those who don’t vote tend to be young, poor, or marginalized. “They’re often the folks who are scratching and climbing to get into the middle class. … There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls. We should want to get them into the polls. So that may end up being a better strategy in the short term.”

The “we” here is liberals and small-d democrats.

The “short term” is now.

Think less about registration, more about expanding the American franchise.


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