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Monday, March 03, 2008

Shouldn't we have universal voting?

I have never completely understood why, in a country committed to democracy, we make every citizen pay taxes and get a social security number, but we do not make every citizen vote.  And, if I understand the most robust universal health care plans, apparently there are now serious proposals for forcing every citizen to acquire some form of health insurance.   I can understand the argument that health care is more important than voting, but these mandates need not be mutually exclusive. 

In other words, I wish there was as much commitment to universal voting as there now seems to be for universal health care.  In this context, consider this fact: despite record turn-out for the 2004 election, George Bush received just over 60 million votes, which represents only roughly 20% of the total US population. 

As a real-politik matter, I have a suspicion why there  is no discussion in the major parties about universal voting: lots of new and different people voting might mean lots of new and different people getting elected.  As much as this year is about change, I suspect that kind of change gets few of those in power inside-the-Beltway really excited.

Posted by Douglas A. Berman on March 3, 2008 at 07:57 AM in Law and Politics | Permalink


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If I remember correctly, Howard Rosenthal in the late 1960s/early 1970s identified two sources of instability caused by compulsory voting: Defaced and blank ballots ("FY" votes) and increased legitimacy for extreme candidates/parties. Those who would have not voted were it not compulsory act out their objections to the system by turning in uncountable ballots or to the perceived sameness of the more established parties and candidates by voting for extremists or minor parties.

Posted by: Ted McClure | Mar 10, 2008 8:31:02 PM

Does failing to vote impose the same kind of moral hazard problem as failing to sign up for health insurance? I might passively sit back, happy to let others decide the nation's policy, until one day something comes along that gets my dander up, and I finally go vote. How does that hurt those who have been going regularly to vote for dogcatcher and school bonds? It dilutes their power, but it's hard to see how they are harmed in a way we might deem illegitimate. By contrast, this free-rider issue is the primary justification for enforcing universality.

Perhaps the apathetic voter does present a kind of free rider problem. I have free-ridden on others informing themselves about boring quotidian politics. But that doesn't mean that others are necessarily deprived of the benefit of their diligent self-education on those issues. (It may be that I am perfectly aware of the merits of whatever issue has roused me from apathy.) It's not quite like those who have opted out of insurance while healthy, only to opt in once illness or injury is on the horizon, depriving those who have diligently paid into the insurance pool. While there is an element of civic solidarity in voting (an economically irrational act), there's not quite the same personal "investment" as there is in participation in a common insurance fund.

Posted by: Andrew | Mar 4, 2008 2:46:22 PM

Both major US parties are used to their current methods I'd say -- millions of dollars, thousands of consultants and oodles of TV time are given to GOTV efforts, all of which would be rendered worthless by compulsory voting.

It's a good idea for any democracy, mostly to dilute the extremes of policy. But good luck selling it.

Posted by: Jacques Chester | Mar 3, 2008 11:14:04 PM

Why Some People Shouldn't Vote
By N. Gregory Mankiw
October 2000


Posted by: kb | Mar 3, 2008 8:45:07 AM

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