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My contribution to the discussion on “Should voting be mandatory?”

My short answer (based on the research of Leighley and Nagler):

Whether or not mandatory voting is a good idea, I think it’s unlikely to happen at a national level. Even setting aside the practical difficulties of taking a now-voluntary action and making it compulsory, bringing in the other half of the potential electorate would change the political conversation so much that it’s hard for me to see current officeholders supporting such a plan.

For the full story, see here.


  1. Kevin Wright says:

    I agree with one of the discussants that too many people vote. Two reasons:

    1. I’m decently educated and interested in politics. There are many issues about which I feel inadequately informed to be a good voter. Why should disinterested and entirely uninformed people even be _allowed_ to vote?

    1. I’m a trained survey sampler. Why should we spend a hundred million dollars on an election when a well-run survey of 10,000 people would give nearly identical results?

    • Wonks Anonymous says:

      You beat me to it. Although I would propose having people take a civics test and then weighting their vote by their score.

    • Jeremy Fox says:

      “Why should disinterested and entirely uninformed people even be _allowed_ to vote?”

      Why should anyone but the wisest and most knowledgeable person in the country (presuming this person could be identified) even be _allowed_ to vote?

      The reasons you propose for why too many people vote seem to presume a rather narrow and unorthodox view of the rationale for democracy over alternative political systems

    • Andrew says:


      A representative sample of 10,000 people would be just fine for many purposes. The problem is that the subset of people who turn out to vote are not a representative sample.

    • Evens Salies says:

      I think the answer to 2 can be illustrated as follows.

      In France, the left wing elected its leader (premier secrétaire) in November 2008. After the first round of voting held on Thursday November 20, the top two candidates ranked as follows: Ségolène Royal led with around 42% against 34% for Aubry. On the next round, Aubry won by a tiny margin of 42 votes against Ségolène Royal, “immediately provoking accusations of cheating, and calls for new election.” A PS National Council examined the results on Tuesday 25 November. In the recount, Aubry was declared the winner with wider margin of 102 votes. The rate of participation was 58.87% (134,784 votes) of which 67,413 in favour of Aubry (50.016%) and 67,371 going to Royal (49.984%).

      This result raises some important questions about our democratic system because a difference of 102 votes in terms of proportion means that Aubry enjoyed an extra share of 0.076% (100×102/134,784). To put it differently, Aubry received 100×(67,413/67,371-1)=0.062% more votes. These differences are less than one per thousand thus any statistician would conclude, without testing it, that there is no significant difference between the votes received by the two candidates. There are several reasons to believe this. The main reason being that one has to consider the sample of 58.87% party members as if it had been selected at random (random sampling).

      You can see a summary of the Aubry / Royal election at the following URL,8599,1861333,00.html, last access: December 6th 2010, published by Time on line in November 22nd 2008.

  2. Jim says:

    Your commenters are right– Australia has had compulsory suffrage since the 20s, and though there’s always discussion after an election (normally by the losing party) against it, unsurprisingly winning parties don’t seem to do anything about it.

    Whether it results in good policy is another matter. I noticed most of the other countries which enforce compulsory suffrage tend to be highly unequal societies, and in recent times all (bar Singapore, which has a similar wealth composition to Australia, and the DRC, which is a pretend democracy) have made a lurch to the left. I suspect that forcing the revelation of the preferences of the most commonly disenfranchised in more unequal societies is more likely to result in policy with a strong present-bias.

    On the other hand, in countries like Singapore and Australia, where property ownership is high and where there is compulsory superannuation, I suspect a larger proportion of voters become “natural conservatives” in the flavour of Dobek (1993). As a result, Australians abhor budget deficits (they put upward pressure on interest rates in small open economies), and generally oppose strong unions, etc.

  3. Brecht says:

    .. so to the primary question posed (“Should voting be mandatory ?”) — your primary conclusion is not Yes/No/Maybe … but rather:

    ” Whether or not mandatory voting is a good idea, I think it’s unlikely to happen..” {?}

    Discussion seems to wander from that indirect start, on an obviously complex issue. You do indicate that the current election system is dysfunctional because “… bringing in the other half of the potential electorate would change the political conversation so much..”

    You are correct that the system is dysfunctional, but voter turnout is trivial among other huge conceptual and practical electoral problems.

    Most assume the ballot box somehow does (or could, with proper rules) contain bona fide decisions of “the people” (a fictitious entity). In reality, political voting is primarily a social ritual where various members of the tribe pretend to decide hypothetical policies & issues far beyond their knowledge and authority.

    American plurality voting is absurd on its face, even if one accepts the precepts of democracy (majority rule). You’d be hard-pressed to name any elected official (including U.S. Presidents) who assumed office with majority approval of the electorate. Of course, there’s Arrow’s Theorem. ‘Representative Democracy’ does not cure the shortcomings of ‘Direct Democracy’ — it just simplifies the ritual & facilitates the resulting Oligarchy.

    Corruption in ballot access, balloting itself, and vote-counting is very significant across the U.S…. and won’t be cured in the slightest– by dragging more people to voting booths.

    This “mandatory voting” issue incorrectly views a vastly larger problem… thru a soda straw.

    • Andrew says:


      1. Everything is a “social ritual.” I don’t see how describing Americans as “members of the tribe” adds anything useful to the discussion.

      2. As I discuss in my linked blog post at the Monkey Cage, in a representative democracy (as opposed to a direct democracy) it’s not so crucial that voters be well-informed on the details of policy.

      3. I would not have chosen the topic, “Should voting be mandatory?” The topic was chosen by the NYT editors, and they asked me to write something on the topic. I’m always on the lookout to reach new audiences, so I sent them something that I thought was relevant to the discussion.

  4. Peter T says:

    re Jim’s comment – yes, Australia has had compulsory voting since the 20’s. It also has a politically neutral Electoral Commission which draws national seat boundaries, registers voters and counts votes. Which means that political efforts to skew turnout or gerrymander boundaries are largely pointless. But Australia has not recently “lurched to the left”. By US standards it always was ‘left” – strong social welfare state, strong unions, fair-sized government sector “liberal” means mainstream, “socialism” is not a dirty word. Governed from either the centre-right, or centre-left, with the latest switch to the centre-left driven a a perceived lurch to the right over industrial relations.

    BTW, election results fairly closely reflect poll results on the political opinions of the population.

  5. But can we take into account what would happen to non-voters if they became voters. Would they still represent their previous view or would they close the gap?

    But I also wonder if the impact would be worth the hassle. Wikipedia lists about 10 countries with enforced compulsory voting and 15 with non-enforced compulsory voting. Now, everybody’s talking about Australia. But what about the others? Without looking, can you guess, purely from what you know about a country’s economy and political culture, whether it has compulsory voting:

    * Austria – Peru
    * Congo – Uganda
    * Singapore – Taiwan