Occupy Wall Street protesters have been criticized for not being specific in their policy proposals, but they have offered some broad outlines for where they want to take the country. They want less income inequality and less money in politics. They want more better-paying jobs and increased regulations on banks.
A Nov. 6 opinion piece in The New York Times got me asking, Would compulsory voting help advance Occupy Wall Street’s goals? Should achieving full voter participation be on its policy agenda?
America has dabbled in compulsory voting before. Starting in 1636, residents of Plymouth Colony paid fines for failing to vote. Several Massachusetts towns adopted fines for citizens who failed to attend town meetings. Virginia Colony introduced compulsory voting in 1649 and fines for not voting were paid in tobacco. Other states followed suit: Maryland in 1715, Delaware in 1734 and Georgia in 1777.
Compulsory voting faded after the Independence War, and debate over it only revived in the early 20th century. In 1889, Kansas City imposed taxes for failing to vote, before the Missouri State Supreme Court stuck it down six years later. North Dakota and Massachusetts amended their state constitutions to allow for mandatory voting but never implemented it.
There is little reason to believe mandatory voting would catch on today. But if it did, and we adopted it, what effect would it have?
Those who stand to benefit the most from voting tend to participate the least in our elections: the poor, the youth, the unemployed, the homeless and minorities. Politicians naturally target the voting population, which means overlooking those politically marginalized segments of our society. This probably accounts, at least in part, for why the federal government spends seven times more on the elderly, who vote in droves, than it does on children. If all youth voters were forced to vote, student debt relief could plausibly become an important campaign issue.
When poorer voters are forced to vote, the government enacts more redistributive policies that reduce income inequality, according to a 2005 study by Alberto Chong of the Inter-American Development Bank and Mauricio Olivera of George Mason University. They found that compulsory voting, if strictly enforced, has a strong effect on income distribution.
“In short, enforceable compulsory voting laws compel the bottom income quintiles of the population to vote,” they wrote. “In this scenario, the median voter would be the population that prefers higher transfers and redistribution programs. If the law is enforced, the effect is an improved distribution of income.”
More equal income distribution ties into one of the main arguments proponents of compulsory voting make, which is that full participation gives democracies substantive legitimacy because the more people who vote, the more closely the elected bodies reflect popular will. As a result, those bodies are more likely to adopt “fairer policies.”
If OWS demonstrators judge compulsory voting solely on its economic outcome, they could find it an attractive solution. But they could also find ample reason not to support compulsory voting, as I’m sure you can. (If you’re interested in hearing arguments for and against compulsory voting, I encourage you to read the Times articleand the subsequent discussion about it on the Times’ website.)
The Occupy movement has already changed the national conversation and spotlighted its goals of reducing income inequality, increasing regulation on banks and draining corporate money out of politics. Now the question is how it will effect change through politics. A fully participatory democracy, achieved through compulsory voting, could be one answer.