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President Trump met yesterday in the Oval Office with Republican lawmakers and members of his cabinet.
What if voting were mandatory for Americans?
Yesterday, 27 scholars and voting-rights advocates offered what seems like an audacious idea: requiring all eligible Americans to vote in every election, or potentially be fined.
Universal “civic duty voting,” they said, would solve a lot of problems. When everyone votes, the barriers to registering new voters fall away. Voter suppression becomes irrelevant. Politicians have to court an electorate that extends beyond their narrow bases, promoting moderation. Democracy truly runs on the consent of the governed — not the minority who cast ballots.
The idea, proposed in a 63-page report published by the Brookings Institution and the Harvard Kennedy School, is certain to rile those who see an order to wear a mask as an assault on freedom, never mind an order to vote. Others will argue that voting should be limited to those who care enough to make the effort. But about two dozen countries already use some form of mandatory voting, and in Australia — the independent-minded nation that was the template for the proposal — civic duty voting not only works, but is also wildly popular, and has been for nearly a century.
Australia’s requirement is no diktat, said Miles Rapoport, a fellow in democracy studies at the Kennedy School and a co-author of the proposal with E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Brookings Institution. After an Australian election, those who didn’t participate receive a letter asking them to explain their absence (a wide range of excuses are acceptable). Non-respondents get a second letter, and if they don’t reply, they’re fined — but only about $20, Rapoport said.
The idea is not to force but to prod citizens to participate in democracy, even if they cast blank ballots. And it works: About nine in 10 registered voters regularly cast ballots, and only a tiny fraction are actually fined.
Will Americans buy it? “Our intent at this point is just to put it on the table,” Rapoport said. He pitched the idea to lawmakers last year at a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Nashville. “The reaction was mixed,” he said. “Some were immediately negative, but others said they thought it was an intriguing idea. And several said they would like to submit legislation embodying it in their states.”
“Our working group began with the premise that the full participation of every American citizen in our democratic process is a fundamental good,” he added. “We don’t assume everyone will share that idea, but we think it’s fundamentally true to the basic principles of democracy.”
Join us at 4 p.m. Eastern today as we discuss how, 100 years since women’s suffrage, many groups are still fighting for unimpeded access to the vote during a presidential election year. Who still faces obstacles to voting? What can be done to change it?
This Unfinished Work conversation, hosted by our deputy Politics editor Rachel Dry, will bring together political experts and leaders including Representative Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico; Lauren Groh-Wargo, the chief executive of Fair Fight Action; and Melanye Price, a political science professor, to shed light on how voting power really works in this country — and how many people are still fighting to exercise voting rights.