The Dangers of the Voter Turnout Myth

I have long opposed making voting mandatory, an idea that pops up every few years. I still don’t like the idea. But it’s become more attractive, at least as a thought experiment. 

The arguments against compelling people to vote—as Australia and a handful of other countries do—run from the constitutional (it’s coerced speech) to the cultural (this is America, dagnabbit) to the practical and the partisan. 

Historically, the practical case is that it’s the wrong solution chasing a nonexistent problem. Proponents of mandatory voting think that low voter turnout is a sign of civic decay and democratic entropy. This view, no doubt accurate or at least plausible for some people, misses the fact that for many other Americans not voting is a sign of general satisfaction. We had record-breaking turnout in 2020. Raise your hand if think that was proof that America’s civic and democratic commitments are stronger than ever. 

More importantly, if voting is virtuous, its virtue—like all virtue—derives from it being voluntary. Compelled virtue is an oxymoron. 

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