Democracy “Inaction”: The Case for Compulsory Voting in America

Until voting is made compulsory in America, “democracy” is just a nice word people throw around to make themselves feel free

Anyone who lives in a country that prides itself as being a democracy does so in the apparent knowledge that their elected representatives are there not by the grace of God, but the will of the people.

Yet how can a country like America claim it is the centre of the democratic universe when voter turnout has hovered around or just above the 60% mark for decades?

And if you want to look at the most recent Presidential election of 2016, only 56% of those eligible to vote turned up.

This means that of the just over 245m Americans eligible to vote, 110m did not participate in the democratic process which underpins everything they apparently hold so true in their country.

Now, I can buy that some might have been feeling poorly that day or were in some other way physically incapacitated and unable to get to a voting booth. I also understand that others were somewhere dso physically distanced from a location where they could voice their democratic opinion that such was not possible. And we all hear the stories about a range of unsavoury practices that lead to voter suppression, leading to people who would otherwise have voted finding they have had this right nefariously removed.

But even taking all this into account, there are literally tens of millions of Americans who took a hall pass and opted out of the democratic process.

A Hall Pass on Democracy

As an Australian, it’s just a given that we have to vote. It is compulsory. You are fined if you do not participate.

This does not mean our system is perfect. There is always a small contingent who “donkey vote”, which means willfully filling out the ballot form with super funny stuff like “Vote 1 for Free Hooch” or “Vote 1 For Mr Richard Head”. This sits around the 3–4% mark on average, which is actually pretty low given how many jackasses I’ve met in Oz…

And, of course, some just go and tick the boxes their mother/father/ boyfriend/wife/uncle/boss/bestie etc told them they should tick, which is to say voter apathy is a definite thing here and compulsory voting is certainly not an antidote to it.

Every election, without fail, I hear the same “I don’t know who to vote for”, “ I don’t believe in any of them”, “None of them want to do anything for me” (because it’s all about your, democracy, right, not “us”?), “All politicians are bastards” etc etc.

However…for all that…on average turn out for the past century sits well above 90% and has hit as high as nearly 97%.

I’ve had arguments with American mates about this. At the heart of their defence of non-compulsory voting is the same line of reasoning— that, in fact, true democracy should give you the right to vote or not. That by choosing not to vote, you are in effect exercising your democratic right to say you do not wish to be represented by any politician throwing their hat in the ring.

The problem with this is that others will vote and some of those same politicians you don’t believe represent you (here’s looking at the Bernie Bros) will still end up being in charge. Laws will be made, Supreme Court Justices confirmed, budgets decided, wars started, reforms or lack thereof will occur by people who might be so opposite to what you believe in instead of others who are at least a little closer to where you stand politically.

And all this will happen because, and let’s look no further than the 2016 US Presidential election, a MINORITY of the population got their preferred candidate(s) over the line.

I understand that the US electoral college, similar to Australia’s Federal system, is designed in such a way that a party gets over the line by winning electoral college votes (or seats of Parliament in Australia’s case) rather than needing to win the popular vote, although with Australia there is no instance where this happened. The closest we’ve had to this in Australia is where we have ended up with a hung parliament where neither party has enough seats to hold government and must horse-trade with minority parties to cobble together a minority government.

Lesser of Two Evils

Again using 2016 as the example, many didn’t turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton for all manner of reasons, from hating the idea of a Clinton Dynasty to being gutted about their man Bernie not being the nominee to feeling she was too hawkish on foreign affairs or being in the pockets of Wall St to not wanting a woman in power.

However…by not voting…or even by protest voting for Trump…they ended up with a leader who has at best not once led the nation in any measurable fashion since he was elected, and at worst, as we’ve seen with the way he has handled COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death, pushed his country to the bring of a dark abyss over which it might tip and fall and break in two.

If people are compelled to vote, they might just start to be more engaged.

Given Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3,000,000, imagine how things might have gone with compulsory voting? If another 100 million or so Americans had put their hand up to be counted in the most important part of the democratic cycle, that 3,000,000 would have doubled.

Sure, given the flawed electoral college system, this could still have translated to a loss if the votes didn’t fall in the right places, but we will never know. This is the same for every election ever held in the USA in modern times, and the ramifications are humongous.

I know I’m throwing around a lot of “what ifs” in there, and I am well aware that even with compulsory voting in the USA there might be no change to the way history has rolled out.

So long as Americans decide to not have a say in the democratic process, their country will remain the Dis-United States of ‘Murica whose elected representatives represent the few, not the many.

But the thing is this: If people are compelled to vote, they might just start to be more engaged.

They might feel a little more inclined to listen to what their elected officials say and do, and what those who wish to be elected say they WILL or WON’T do if they are successful.

They might feel a little more empowered knowing that they participated in a democratic process that puts into power people who will end up having a major say in the lives of the citizens of their country.

Nothing changes unless you are part of the change

Some may even be inspired to run, meaning the pool of potential candidates comes from a much broader cross-section of society, bringing into government people who want to enact real change, rather than speak fine words about change.

OK, that’s a little bit pie-in-the-sky optimism, but it’s possible.

None of this will happen, however, while voting remains a choice.

Nothing changes unless you are part of the change.

Withdrawing from the democratic process is not protesting that you don’t believe in any of the candidates — it’s saying you don’t believe in your own right to change the system.

So long as Americans decide to not have a say in the democratic process, their country will remain the Dis-United States of ‘Murica whose elected representatives represent the few, not the many.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Young Apprentice AKA PB

Young Apprentice AKA PB

Writer, editor, content dude, digital disruptor. Politics. Arts. Tech. Travel. Food. Film. The Force. Digital Nomad. Citizen of the universe. Coffee. Always.