Voting Reforms and Ideas About Voting
At the center of the debate over democracy involves a battle over election reform. Over the year many conservative states have rolled back innovations designed to increase political participation to protect against voter fraud. Meanwhile, liberal states continue to look for ways to increase voter participation. Underlying these reforms is an unspoken political implication that nonvoters will support Democrats rather than Republicans.
Consequently, elections have become about more than the direction of the country’s public policy. Rather every election is an existential contest for the survival of the constitution and democracy. The most important issues today surround issues like voting reform and court appointments rather than the economy or international relations. They appeal to the most radical parts of the electorate and leave the silent majority largely ignored.
E.J. Dionne and Miles Rapoprt believe a simple reform can turn the tide. It may not solve every issue democracy faces, but might clear the way to make future reforms possible. They advocate for what they call civic duty voting in a new book called 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting. So many political debates center around ways to encourage Americans to vote. It’s an approach many democracies abandoned decades ago. Instead, they simply require citizens to vote. Voter turnout in countries like Australia regularly approaches 90%, because it’s viewed as a duty rather than a right. Moreover, the shift has transformed election day into a celebratory affair.
Like most reforms, this is an idea with important implications. It challenges the way we think about elections and raises important questions about democratic governance. So, the reform itself may or may not deserve your support. However, it deserves your attention, because it forces us to work through important ideas about democracy.
Rights and Duties
Americans frame nearly all political debates in terms of rights. The debates surrounding abortion involve those who support a right to choose against those who support a right to life. Nobody frames their political principles in terms of duties. Rights imply freedoms, while duties suggest responsibilities. Indeed, many view duties and obligations as hinderances upon their freedom.
However, most rights impose duties upon their citizens. For example, parental rights involve a series of responsibilities and obligations. Anyone who neglects to care for their children will lose their rights as a parent. Indeed, parents understand the enormous responsibility of parenthood. Most parents find plenty to complain about. At the same time, they recognize the fulfillment of those obligations earns them important rights and privileges.
Citizenship in a democracy is a little like parenthood. It requires responsibilities and duties from its citizens. We expect citizens to take an interest in public affairs. They serve on juries. They vote in elections. Yet many view the right to vote as a decision of whether to vote. From this perspective any requirement to vote is an infringement upon this right. However, this is the wrong way to think about the right to vote. Most rights are intricately tied to duties. Parental rights require the care for a child. In the same way, the right to vote involves voting.
What is Civic Duty Voting?
Of course, E.J. Dionne and Miles Rapoport do more than speculate about the possibility of universal voting. They put together an actionable proposal for policymakers and their constituents to consider. Their plan breaks down into three parts. The main piece involves legislation to enable civic duty voting. They advocate for legislation primarily at the state and local levels, but welcome it at the federal level as well. The key to enforcement is a small fine, but they provide a number of justifications to avoid the penalty. In the end, the penalty is not so much punitive as psychological. At the same time, the penalty is real, but it’s minor like a parking ticket or jaywalking.
The second part involves education. Election officials must communicate to voters they are required to vote. They must make the process as light of a burden as possible so voters do not become frustrated at the process. The entire role and purpose of election administration changes after civic duty voting is enacted. Election administrators will no longer focus on turnout as an important metric for success. Rather they will focus on voter satisfaction with the experience.
Finally, Dionne and Rapoport propose a number of ‘gateway reforms’ to make civic duty voting easier to enact. The additional reforms are wide ranging. Some seem almost necessary for successful implementation like automatic voter registration or early voting options. However, others involve optional reforms such as a none of the above option or preregistration of 16 or 17 year olds. Obviously, some will disagree about which reforms are essential for civic duty voting to succeed. The goal is to create a coherent election system that makes voting easy and accessible to fulfill.
An Incomplete Democracy?
Nobody expects any proposal to solve all of America’s problems. Indeed, it’s unclear how much of a difference it will make until states and municipalities begin to implement it. Regardless, the idea appeals to me, because it raises important questions. It’s bizarre how Americans claim to govern democratically yet elections involve only a fraction of the population. Democratic governance should involve every citizen rather than just those most motivated to vote. Dionne and Rapoport speculate that a broader electorate could turn down the temperature of political polarization. Primaries have shown how the most motivated voters are also the most extreme in their ideas and views. So, universal civic duty voting should bring a level of moderation to American politics missing in recent years.
Still, even if it does not affect political polarization or change the dialogue of American politics, it will change the way politicians interact with citizens. Every citizen will be a voter. No longer will politicians divide the electorate into registered voters, likely voters, and nonvoters. Every citizen will simply be a voter. So, in many ways civic duty voting goes beyond elections. It confers respect and dignity to citizens as participants in democracy. In many ways, this might be its greatest influence upon democracy.
Miles Rapoport joins the podcast tomorrow to make the case for civic duty voting and to discuss his book 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting.
E. J. Dionne and Miles Rapoport (2022) 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting
Lisa Jane Disch (2021) Making Constituencies: Representation as Mobilization in Mass Democracy
Lee Drutman (2020) Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America
Jørgen Elklit and Michael Maley (2019) “Why Ballot Secrecy Still Matters,” Journal of Democracy
Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (2020) Let them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality
Benjamin Highton (2017) “Voter Identification Laws and Turnout in the United States,” The Annual Review of Political Science
Sheila Suess Kennedy (2017) “Electoral Integrity: How Gerrymandering Matters,” Public Integrity
Robert Lieberman and Suzanne Mettler (2020) Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy
Nathaniel Persily and Charles Stewart III (2021) “The Miracle and Tragedy of the 2020 U.S. Election,” Journal of Democracy
E. E. Schattschneider (1960) The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America
Democracy Paradox Podcast
Miles Rapoport on How We Can Achieve Universal Voting
Lee Drutman Makes the Case for Multiparty Democracy in America
Forcing people to vote might help a bit but it is largely a cosmetic solution to our deficit in democracy. The percentage of people who vote is an indicator of democracy and the U.S. fails badly on the basis of that one indicator. Forcing people to vote may help with that indicator but it is less clear that it will help that much with democracy. A single party system such as in the old Soviet Union could have universal participation of voters and could take pride in that indicator.
But if we are to force everyone to vote then surely we should provide those voters with a good selection of candidates. Surely one candidate is not enough, but neither are two or even three. It could be argued that our primaries give us a wide selection of candidates, but that is only for citizens who live in states with early primaries. We have only two political parties with candidates with viable candidates and those two candidates are chosen through a process that is hardly democratic. What we need is a better system of voting, both in primaries (if we still need primaries with more viable political parties) and in other elections. See: https://unbiasedvoting.substack.com/p/avoiding-the-two-party-duopoly
We have a long way to go to a more perfect democracy.
Thanks for the comments. I’d check Lee Drutman’s Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop if you haven’t already. Drutman actually had some interaction with E.J. Dionne about civic duty voting over Twitter. Neither Drutman nor Dionne view this reform as an alternative to more substantial electoral reform. Rather it’s a simple reform that complements those bigger picture voting reforms discussed in your blog.