The rancorous debates about voting nationwide have obscured some important good news about participation in the 2020 elections. The voter turnout rates in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election, hit historic highs of 50% and 66% respectively, with Minnesota once again having the highest turnout of any state in the country, reaching 81.3% in the 2020 presidential election.
While Minnesota’s turnout is historically high, that is not the case in many states, so there is much to improve upon. In our new book, “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting,” we put forward the bold idea that universal voting – that is, making voting not only a fundamental right of every citizen, but a required civic duty for every citizen – can lead to participation rates of 90% and higher.
If we are willing to learn from other countries, a remarkable opportunity lies right in front of us. In 26 democratic countries around the world, as disparate as Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Greece, Luxembourg, and Uruguay, some form of required voting is in place. One powerful example is Australia.
Australia enacted its current policy of mandatory participation almost 100 years ago, in 1924. Since then, voter turnout has hovered around 90% in every major election. Ninety-six point three percent of Australians are registered, and 91.9% of them voted in their most recent national elections in 2019.
How do they do this? First, there is a major and energetic effort to get everyone into the process. The Australian Electoral Commission takes the lead in “enrolling” every citizen through the Federal Direct Enrollment and Update Program, and political parties and civil society organizations join in a major public education effort. There are multiple avenues of early and mail voting, and Election Day, always a Saturday, is a national day of celebration, with “democracy sausage” stands outside every polling place.
Second, there is a light-touch enforcement of the requirement to participate. Enrolled voters who did not cast a ballot are sent a letter asking for an explanation. Almost all reasons are accepted, and if none is given after two attempts, a fine of $20 (U.S. $15) is assessed. In practice, very few people pay any fine; 13% of non-voters, or 1% of all citizens in a recent study.
In addition to having an increased turnout and a voting electorate fully reflective of the population as a whole, there will be other important benefits. If everyone is required to vote, the institutions of our communities will shift to help people fulfill that obligation. Schools will do more civic education, employers will be more likely to give time off to vote, civic organizations and media platforms will increase their level of providing information, and – studies have shown – citizens themselves will work to inform themselves about their choices.
Campaigns and parties would change, too. The strategy of winning by just ginning up turnout among your base, and – in the worst but not uncommon scenario – attempting to depress the turnout of your opponent, would be a non-starter. If everyone is required to vote, then nearly everyone is listening. Campaigns would have to talk to everyone and make a case that appeals broadly.
There is a powerful analogy to jury service. The reason for universal and mandatory jury service is so that people making decisions about guilt or innocence, and the appropriate punishment, will be drawn from a fully reflective “pool” of jurors. The same logic applies to voting; decisions affecting all our lives, and the selection of the people who will make them, should be made by all of us – if you will, by the consent of all the governed.
We realize there may be strong opposition to the idea of universal voting. In our book, we answer many of the objections. To libertarians, we note that we propose very light-touch enforcement, at most, a $20 fine, which most non-voters won’t have to pay if they offer any reasonable excuse for not voting. Citizens could also apply for conscientious objector status and would be exempted from any penalties. And for those who might find even a $20 fine burdensome, we note the fine would not be criminal, and could not be increased by penalties or interest. It could also be waived in exchange for an hour of community service.
So how might universal voting be enacted? While a federal bill, The Civic Duty to Vote Act (H.R. 7536) has been introduced, it is far more likely that a state or municipality, fulfilling their roles as “laboratories of democracy,” could adopt universal voting in a manner tailored to their circumstances.
Minnesota is a state well positioned by its history to have this discussion. In addition to its already-high levels of participation, Minnesota was one of the very first states with same day registration, which has turned out to be a critical factor in making voting accessible to all.
Universal voting is a big idea, one that goes well beyond the boundaries of our current discussion about voting and elections. And though it has had powerful proof of concept in other countries, it is a very new idea for debate in the United States. But every proposed reform and every policy discussion begins at some time, and in some place. In “100% Democracy,” we are offering the opportunity for that discussion to begin. Might it be a discussion to begin in this state laboratory?
E.J. Dionne is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post, Cecily Hines is a senior program advisor adviser for the Senior Practice Fellowship in American Democracy at the Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Miles Rapoport is a longtime organizer and the former secretary of state for Connecticut.