What If Everyone Voted? The Case for 100 Percent Democracy.
The first step toward ending our voting wars is to recognize that every citizen should play a role in shaping our nation’s destiny.
In the wake of changes that made voting more convenient, and resulted in record turnout in 2020, state after state is making it harder for citizens to cast a ballot. Congress is deadlocked on whether the federal government should protect this most basic of all democratic rights. False claims of election-rigging in 2020 led to a violent attack on the very process of transferring power. As a nation, we vacillate between inclusion and exclusion, between embracing democracy or retreating.
Breaking this cycle requires a game-changer. We propose universal voting.
Under this system, every U.S. citizen would be legally obligated to vote, just as every citizen is obligated to serve on juries. By recognizing that all of us, as a matter of civic duty, have an obligation to shape our shared project of democratic self-government, we could move from our 2020 voter turnout high — some 66.8 percent of eligible voters — much closer to 100 percent democracy.
Universal voting takes seriously the Declaration of Independence’s insistence that government is legitimate only when it is based on the “consent of the governed.” The Founders did not say “some of the governed” (even 66.8 percent). Including everyone in our system of government would live up to the promise made at the birth of our republic. Universal voting would tear down barriers and elevate our civic obligations. It could undergird other reforms and make clear that our country’s commitment to democracy is unapologetic, confident and complete.
As a public responsibility, voting is no less important than jury duty. Universal civic-duty voting would put an end to legal assaults on voting rights. Those responsible for organizing elections would be required to resist all efforts at voter suppression.
By bringing all citizens into our democratic experiment, universal voting would tell those who run political campaigns to stop treating elections like invitations to exclusive parties. There would no longer be an A-list of “likely voters” and B- and C-level lists of those less likely to participate. Political candidates would have to appeal to all of us, rather than strategize on how to turn out their base while discouraging the other side’s supporters from casting ballots.
More than two dozen democratic countries have versions of compulsory participation. One of the most successful models is Australia’s. The United States adopted the secret ballot after Australia tried it first. We should do the same with universal voting.
Adopted in 1924, Australia’s system has created a culture of participation. Election Day is always on a Saturday, and turnout hovers around 90 percent in every major election. “Voting in Australia is like a party,” one voter told the New York Times in 2018. Participating in elections is not some grim exercise involving endless lines. Elections become what they should be: celebrations of freedom.
The Australian system provides for a wide range of legitimate excuses for failing to cast a ballot, including illness, and the penalty for not voting is low: 20 Australian dollars (roughly $15). Fewer than 15 percent of nonvoters end up having to pay the fine.
While everyone is required to register, the Australian Electoral Commission takes the lead in “enrolling” every citizen through a federal program; as of December, 96.3 percent of eligible Australians were registered to vote. Aussie political parties and civil society organizations join in a major public education effort as well. There are multiple avenues of early and mail voting, and easy access for people away from home on Election Day.
The gateway reforms that a fair U.S. system would require are similar to those included in the Freedom to Vote Act and other voting rights bills languishing in Congress — legislation we strongly support. Explicitly declaring voting a duty would make clear why all levels of government must allow citizens to fulfill their obligations. Voting as a civic responsibility is rooted in the proposition that rights and duties are intimately related. Declaring voting a duty is the best way to defend it as a right. To say that everyone should vote is the surest guarantee that everyone will be enabled to vote.
Those with a moral objection to voting could assert conscientious-objector status, as they can for the draft. To avoid the compounding of fines and fees of the sort disproportionately imposed on low-income people of color, we propose that any fine imposed for failure to vote — no more than $20 — not be compounded with interest and penalties, nor could it be the basis for any criminal warrant. And the penalty could be waived in exchange for an hour of community service.
The point is not to impose sanctions but to signal that voting is an expectation of citizenship. Again, this would underscore to election stewards that their task is to help citizens do their duty, not to erect obstacles.
Is this proposal constitutional? Yes. We do not refer to this proposal as “compulsory voting” because to force citizens to choose a candidate or party might legitimately be construed by the courts as compulsory speech. Voters would be free to cast a blank ballot. And to stress the freedom not to make a choice, we propose including a “None of the Above” option.
Just as it took time for our country to adopt the secret ballot, it will take effort and experimentation to make universal civic duty voting the national norm. In keeping with Justice Louis Brandeis’s call for states to “try novel social and economic experiments,” we hope individual states will adopt the system and demonstrate its value. About a dozen states give localities wide leeway in establishing rules for local elections, so municipal and county experiments are also possible.
Courts have long ruled that government can legitimately require certain forms of behavior. Our society accepts the universal obligation to serve on juries as the only way to guarantee fair trials that vindicate the rights of everyone. Serving on a jury for a long trial is a far more onerous task than casting a ballot, especially in a system that makes doing so easy. Charles J. Ogletree Jr., the legendary civil rights lawyer and Harvard Law professor, observed that it is “perhaps … a measure of our progress” that “all races and all citizens groan equally loudly when the jury summons arrives.” Yet the right and duty of all to serve are part of the country’s “constitutional strength.”
“A jury gives ordinary people extraordinary power,” Ogletree wrote. The same can be said of the right — and the duty — to vote.
It is time to think anew. Our nation should make clear that it takes the rights and responsibilities of every citizen seriously. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has called forth an extraordinary global alliance on behalf of democratic self-determination. This is a moment for the United States to embrace its commitment to democracy and self-rule — not only in what we say but also in how we govern ourselves.
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a Post Opinions columnist. Miles Rapoport is a senior fellow at the Ash Center of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former Connecticut secretary of state. This essay is drawn from their book, “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting,” published this week by the New Press.