Emilee Booth Chapman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. Her most recent book is Election Day: How We Vote and What It Means for Democracy.
There is this idea on the one hand of this mass collective participation, but on the other hand that there’s a lot of attention being given to the sort of dignity of each individual contribution. So, I think the experience of voting that is most valuable is when you have these two experiences juxtapose with each other
Emilee Booth Chapman
- Introduction – 0:40
- Common Perceptions of Elections – 3:17
- Creative Work of Politics – 15:15
- Thoughts on Voting Reforms – 29:49
- A Model of Good Voting – 39:21
Happy election day for those in the United States. The Midterm elections are finally here. But while the candidates receive most of the attention, the most direct experience most Americans have with elections is through voting itself. But in recent years, the voting process itself has become another source of fierce polarization.
Still, my experience is very few of us think deeply about the idea of voting. Instead, we rely on platitudes about increasing turnout or worries about security. I wanted to get beyond the noise to think more deeply about voting as a political institution.
So, I reached out to Emilee Booth Chapman. She is a political theorist at Stanford University who focuses on elections and voting. Her new book Election Day: How We Vote and What It Means for Democracy is different from any book I have read about voting or elections.
She makes a normative case for voting and elections as an important component of democracy. In this way, she offers a response to deliberative theorists like past guest Hélène Landemore who prefer sortition to select representatives. Our conversation does not touch on that debate directly but does explore the meaning and purpose behind voting. We also consider some different reforms. You’ll find her recommendations surprising whether you identify as a Republican, Democrat, independent, or something else.
If you like this conversation, please leave a 5 star rating on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. The podcast is one rating short of 50 on Apple and one short of 25 on Spotify. I’d really like to see the podcast reach both those milestones this coming week. So, your help is definitely appreciated. Like always there is a complete transcript at www.democracyparadox.com. This is my conversation with Emilee Booth Chapman…
Emilee Booth Chapman, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Emilee Booth Chapman
Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Well, Emilee, I thought that your book Election Day: How We Vote and What it Means for Democracy is just a perfect read for this time year. In the book, you’ve got a lot of great quotes and one of them that really drew me in was where you write, “The democratic value of elections depends on how citizens perceive and experience electoral moments.” I thought that it got at really the heart of the idea behind the book. Can you explain how the average citizen perceives and experiences electoral moments?
Emilee Booth Chapman
Sure. So, the idea that I want to capture with this in the book is that elections bring together a couple of ideas that are often sort of seen as being intention or separate in a democracy. One is the idea of collective agency. On the one hand, the idea that democracy is something we do with lots and lots and lots of other people. It’s something we can only do with lots of other people. Then on the other hand is this idea of individual dignity of contributions. Democracy isn’t just about subsuming our actions into a mob. It’s something different from mob rule. Our individual contributions are discrete and important. So, voting really brings these two ideas together.
We see images of mass participation. If you look at headlines around elections, they often reference millions head to the polls. We see montages from election day on television coverage or videos that we watch online of lots of different people voting in lots of different places. There are lines at the polling place. Sometimes you see the vote counting machines with ballots being shuffled and that gives this idea of mass participation. But at the same time, you have this imagery of the individual private ballot box. The sense that if you go and vote in person, your name is carefully checked against the voter rolls. You are given your individual ballot with a privacy screen. If you vote at home, you are carefully filling out your ballot and making sure you’ve got your signature on the envelope and everything to match.
So, there is this idea on the one hand of this mass collective participation, but on the other hand that there’s a lot of attention being given to the sort of dignity of each individual contribution. So, I think the experience of voting that is most valuable is when you have these two experiences juxtapose with each other so that people can get a sense of how that mass collective action is built out of these individual contributions.
Let’s break those apart just for this conversation. In the book you write, “We vote not only because we want to have equal decision-making power, but because we want to be collectively empowered.” And you kind of just got at that idea. That voting brings us together and allows us to make decisions together. Why is collective empowerment so important?
Emilee Booth Chapman
Sure. Well, I think among the values that we associate with democracy, one of the ones at the top of the list is the idea of equality. We all have equal political power. I think that can overshadow the idea that we don’t just want equal political power, we want positive political powers. So, one way we could have equal political power is to all have no power, to live in an anarchy and to have no control over our social world. So, the idea of voting is that it creates this structure whereby we can act as equals and say we’re all going to have one vote, but we can exercise collectively some control over what happens and have some influence over the rules that govern us.
So, there is this sense that citizens on occasions for voting, especially elections, are exercising this collective power to say, ‘No, I don’t want that person to make the rules for me,’ or, ‘We want this other person,’ or in some cases when we are voting on ballot measures, we’re exercising a direct influence. That’s a way of being not just equal, but equal in a sense of positive empowerment.
It’s fascinating to think about it as taking something that is widely considered as both an individual right and an individual duty. It’s something that is very based on each individual person, but then creates something that’s a collective decision through that process. I mean, like you said before, it interweaves the two ideas behind individualism and your individual voice and that community voice and that ability of the community to make a decision. I feel like the thing that connects the two is this concept of citizenship. The idea that it’s a citizen’s obligation. It’s a citizen’s right. Can you talk a little bit about how voting shapes the way that we think of ourselves as democratic citizens?
Emilee Booth Chapman
Yeah, absolutely. So, one of the most important functions that voting serves in a democracy is a socialization function. There are two aspects to this. One is the idea that citizens get socialized into this idea of ourselves as political agents. It’s easy to go about day to day with an inertia of disengagement and say, ‘I’m just doing my thing. I’m taking care of my kids. I’m going to work.’ To sort of think of politics as being something that happens out there that someone else does. Voting is an occasion in which that sense is interrupted, because we have this expectation that voting will involve widespread participation. This is the normal thing for everyone to do.
It provides these regular opportunities for people to say, ‘Okay, it is time for me to take responsibility for making a political decision, to take a side on these issues, to go and show up and recognize that I’m an authority in a democracy.’ So, that’s the idea where people get a sense that, ‘Yes, I am the kind of person who can and should and does participate in politics. Politics is for me. It’s not just for other people.’ So, that changes us from being people who obey the law and have things imposed on us to being citizens, people who have a right and opportunity to exercise influence in politics. So, one side of citizenship is this sense of ourselves as political agents.
But the other side is a sense of ourselves as equal agents, as someone who shares in this with other people. So, we could say, who else are political agent are dictators. Right? They have a lot of control over what happens to the law and policies in their countries. But that’s not what we want in a democracy. We want citizens to think of themselves first as political agents, but also as people who are really involved trying to figure out ways to live with other people, especially with people with whom we disagree. So, voting has this other important sort of socializing function of getting us to exercise political agency in situations where equality is formal and concrete and clear. We go to the polls. We see that we are voting, not just so that we can change the outcomes, but so we collectively can make a decision.
We know that our vote is going to be counted exactly the same as everyone else’s and we are willing to participate in a situation which we know we’re not going to change the outcome individually. This is something that we can only do with others.
So, you just mentioned about the idea of political equality being a necessary part for voting and you brought up the idea that dictators, for instance, have influence. Rather than thinking about the dictator themselves, I think it helps to be able to think about citizenship in a democracy compared to citizenship under a dictatorship, because in theory you could be able to write to political leaders within a country like China. You could express concerns and some people do express concerns within China.
But what I got out of your book was the process of voting itself changes the way that we think of ourselves as political agents that are capable of taking political action even outside of the elections. We think of ourselves as people who have more influence when we talk to political leaders. We think of ourselves as having more agency within the political process. Can you talk a little bit about how it changes the way that we think of ourselves even outside the election year?
Emilee Booth Chapman
Yes. So, I think there’s two sides to this. One is psychological effects where you are building a political identity for people. The sense that, ‘Okay. I have the experience of participating in politics. I have the experience of thinking about political questions and of forming political judgments.’ That is the first step towards being able to form this broader political identity in which people are thinking, not just about the individual questions that confront them at elections, but also more broadly. They think of themselves as a political person who might form judgements about politics in general.
But in addition to that, there’s also an important aspect of the political environment and the political culture which is solicitous of people’s political expression and judgments. The burden is not always on individuals to overcome great barriers to political participation. Instead, there’s an entire system which actively seeks out people’s participation. So, politicians who want to be reelected want to know what it is that citizens care about, especially prospective voters. What it is that they can do for them to help win that vote? So, you have these campaign machines that are designed to elicit participation and involvement in this process of political deliberation.
But you also have interest groups and other policy motivated organizations that spring up around the idea that you’ve got a group of people who are maybe motivated, attentive, excited, energized around elections. So, you have a way of coordinating action at that time that you might not otherwise have. But then you also have an excess of enthusiasm that people have built up around election time and now needs a place to be redirected. So, you can think that these other organizations also have a role in soliciting people’s engagement and involvement. So, I think there’s a way in which the energy of elections and the civic experience that it helps to create sort of feeds into this political environment that creates lots of opportunities for citizens to get involved.
You have this great turn of phrase in the book where you refer to the creative work of politics. You describe elections and just the ideal of democracy being a way to give citizens real opportunities to participate in this creative work of politics. The phrase elicits a lot of different ideas on my end. I mean, on the one hand, the creative work of politics could be actual bills, actual policies that are being devised to come up with solutions that people agree with. But, on the other hand, the creative work of politics could be memes on Twitter, ways to communicate things and express ideas in different ways. How do you think of like the idea of the creative work of politics?
Emilee Booth Chapman
Yeah, I think it’s exactly as you said. It’s a pretty broad concept that encompasses lots of different activities that we undertake to affect not only the structure of policies or the particular proposals that might be on the table for legislation, but also the set of values that we use to evaluate different policies. It involves whether we are focused more on liberty or security or equality, which things are at the height of our attention, but also how we interpret those things. So, when we talk about liberty, are we thinking in a kind of libertarian sense of a lack of coercion? Are we thinking in a more positive Liberty sense as opportunities for self-development? Then at a more fine-grained level is the idea of coming up with slogans and images that help to capture either certain problems that we see in society or certain potential solutions.
So, some examples of this include things like the idea of the 99%, which is a really powerful image. But there’s no necessary way in which you might have politics split between the 1% and the 99%. A lot of politics involves efforts to figure out where that split is going to be. Is it going to be between the 75% and the 25% or is it sort of 50-50? But that cultivation of that image of the 99% and that slogan is a really good example of some of the creative work of politics. Another good example is the idea of Black Lives Matter as a particular slogan and what that all includes. I think hashtags are certainly a very good way of doing this.
But there’s also things that we can sometimes take for granted about how we create narratives that structure, political discourse, and that structure the way that people line up in politics on different teams. So, you can think about the idea of political lanes in primary campaigns. The idea that you might have your mavericks versus your establishment candidates. The way that those labels get established like that is also a part of the creative work of politics. So, I want to understand this pretty broadly and make sure that we have a conception of citizenship that doesn’t just assign people to this kind of spectatorship role or the idea that you’re just sort of saying yes or no. But that have ways of being drawn into that creative work in different forms.
So do you think that on balance that social media then has been a positive influence for the way in which we interact with voting? Because it definitely allows people to be engaged, allows people to participate in new ways and allows people to become participants within the creative work of politics. But many also look at some of the negatives that social media has also created. How do you think of that?
Emilee Booth Chapman
My gut reaction is generally to think that while social media has a lot of benefits, I wouldn’t describe it as a net positive. One of the main reasons is I think that we have a tendency to focus too much on national politics and less on the ways in which people might exercise creative agency in more local immediate ways. So, I think that it is true that social media allows people to get involved in ways that they may not have previously. But I don’t think that that’s necessarily sufficient to outweigh all of the other negatives. Still, I don’t have a great sense of how this kind of creative work of politics compares to the other kinds of creative work that it might be replacing.
But one thing that I do sort of worry about a lot is the idea of what kinds of social networks are being replaced. I don’t know that it’s necessarily social media that is the cause of the breakdown of more local social networks wherein you might see the creative work of politics being done. But I do think that there’s something that’s happening concurrently where you have fewer dense interactions at the local level and in terms of the media associations happening concurrently with social media.
So, when we think about voting and we think about election day, I mean, obviously one of the goals in a democratic society is going to be to select leaders. I mean, that’s the most obvious one. But one of the takeaways that I get from your book is that there are a lot of different goals and objectives behind voting. How should we be thinking about the goals of an election? What are the goals of getting citizens out to vote? What are the goals when we have an election like the 2022 midterms or others?
Emilee Booth Chapman
So, I think of voting as having a variety of different functions or values. The way I think about it is we can focus in on the goals of an individual election versus the goals of voting as a practice and the kinds of rules and structures we want to do for maintaining voting across time. So, most of my focus is on that broader question of what a good practice of voting would look like over time. So, one of the big goals that you want is for people to participate as equals. You want to maintain this sense that there is an equal count.
Prior to the election, you want to have processes of what I call agenda setting and preference formation such that when people come to vote there is a sense that the options on the ballot are meaningful. They represent a sort of real political choice. We have a sense of the values that are associated with these various choices on the ballot so that people are ready to come to this with judgements about politics that can be expressed in their vote. That also when you count all of these votes together, there’s a sort of meaningful collective decision being made here rather than just a whole bunch of disparate thoughts that don’t make a whole lot of sense together.
Then a third thing that we really want to think of as being a value in these occasions for voting is that people do have this experience of voting as an occasion of collective empowerment. Individuals feel like they are part of a political process and that they matter as a part of that. But also, that they feel like they’re doing something with other people and that something that they’re doing is democracy. So, creating that kind of experience around elections is, I think a really important goal of our social norms that we bring around elections and then also of election administration policy.
As you describe it, and to be honest, as I read throughout your book Election Day, it gives me the impression that you feel that voting is an unqualified positive good from a normative sense. Do you think there are any downsides, like maybe polarization that’s created due to elections or anything else? Are there downsides to the way that we do elections or just the process of voting itself?
Emilee Booth Chapman
There are always going to be downsides that come along with particular policies. So, anytime we’re sort of coming up with a set of rules for administering elections, we’re going to have to make tradeoffs among different values so that’s going to come with some downsides as a result of that. But let me maybe just start with what I take to be a general kind of risk with voting that distinguishes it maybe from other forms of participation. This is a concern that people raise that voting creates a consumerist or spectator type model of democracy. The idea that someone else has presented you with a menu of choices and your job is to select among that menu of choices, but not necessarily to be involved in determining what goes on the menu.
So, you’re faced with a ballot. You say like, ‘Okay, those people are running for office and my job as a citizen is just to choose among them.’ So, if we think about voting only as a way of soliciting information about citizens preferences and we focus too much on just sort of making sure we get that information, then I think this is a real risk with voting. So, it’s essential to think about the way that voting fits into a broader system of democracy to make sure that that yes or no judgment or selecting among a limited set of choices that comes with voting is coupled with other aspects of a political system that helps to draw people into other forms of participation that are more creative and doesn’t lock people into the sense that that’s the only role that they.
So that I think is the risk that’s impossible to eliminate with voting. It is this idea that any kind of voting you have is always going to present you with a set of options that you just sort of choose from. So, if you’re not careful, then people can be socialized into a sense that that’s their role as citizens.
The spectator sense of voting is interesting to me. On the one hand, when we think of voting as being a mechanism to hold our leaders, make sure that they’re accountable, make sure that if they’re corrupt, if they’re doing bad things, that the voters then act as a jury, if you will that then determines that that person is not the person that should be in charge and we give power to somebody else, like a competitor, an opponent, or the opposition.
But voting doesn’t really work as a jury. Voters are not sitting there trying to be impartial. It’s odd because it’s almost like if we were a courtroom, the jury would be composed of a handful of impartial people that are deciding between the different sides. But then all the lawyers would get into the jury and the judge would be part of the jury and all of the victims would be part of the jury. Just anybody who’s involved in the case at all would be able to get together and try to decide what the case was. So, it mixes together all of these different metaphors. Like on the one hand, it’s like you’re a participant, you are the barrister in some ways, but then in other ways, you’re the jury trying to weigh between the different sides as you make your vote.
It’s almost allowing people to be impartial as they make a judgment based on their political leaders. It’s just voting itself is such a odd way to be able to think about how we determine things and how we judge things. The spectator model has some benefits, but at the same time, it’s not quite the right metaphor in a lot of ways.
Emilee Booth Chapman
Yes, so I agree with that. I think ideals of voters that focus too much on this idea that we really want impartial voters or we want voters to not be partisan and to come at every election as a blank slate and just evaluate the competence of their leaders is not a great model for democracy. I mean, for one, it’s just sort of highly implausible.
But for another, there’s a lot of value to having people form long term political identities that involve a partisan loyalty. I mean, among other things, partisanship helps tie together all of the different offices in government that you need to work together. So, if everybody just evaluated each individual from an impartial perspective, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense because part of what’s going on in government is that people actually have to work together in certain ways. So, parties help make that happen. You need individuals to identify within the government. So, yeah, I mean I think the value of having this more contested, more partisan atmosphere around elections is precisely that. It does tie this act of voting to the stuff that happens in between, so you’re not just selecting a leader and then backing off and letting it run.
You know, I think of one metaphor for voting is to think of it as an accelerant. It’s like you have politics chugging along and every once in a while it needs an infusion of mass participation and energy. But it’s not that. It’s like everything stops and then you have an election and then it starts again. Instead, it’s this continual process and I think that it is important for citizens to recognize that part of what we do when we vote is not to act as an impartial judge, but it is to take a side, to take a stand in politics and to be part of these longer term political projects.
So, you were going to talk a little bit about some of the other ways that we do specific elections as well. Part of the book actually dipped into what you describe as convenience voting reforms that have happened. It’s fascinating to talk about it today on this podcast because we’re publishing the episode on election day. Yet at the same time, most people have voted long before the actual election. What are your thoughts on convenience voting, especially in terms of ability to vote early or ability to vote by mail? We don’t have to touch on all of the issues, but just in general, what’s kind of the essence to what you think of as better reforms versus reforms that could have negative effects?
Emilee Booth Chapman
Sure. So, as an ideal, you have universal or as close to universal registration as possible. This can look like automatic registration that’s built from census roles, for example, or children being kind of pre-registered to vote more or less as soon as they’re born. At a minimum, it should include same day registration. So, the idea that people can register and vote on the same day so that they can decide to become voters at the time when energy and excitement is at its peak and there is the maximum input of democratic stimulation. So, that’s the first crux. I think any reform agenda should put sort of easing restrictions on registration and making registration as broad as possible.
The next would be an election day holiday. So, the idea is not just that you reduce opportunity costs for a lot of workers, but also that you create a sense of celebration and distinctiveness around the day. A chance for people to recognize this is not just one thing that I’m trying to fit into all the other things that I have to do today, but actually a moment that we mark out as citizens. So, then I think if you have those two things in, having in person election day voting is much more possible. The barriers are somewhat lower and you have a sense that there’s a communal celebration. You have a lot of people who have already been able to overcome the most difficult hurdle of voting which is registration.
The reason why I think having lots of people vote on the same day is really valuable is because it does create this strong sensory experience of people doing it at the same time. You connect the active voting with being in public rather than with the private individual preferences of your home. You have the experience that this is something that we all do together. That it’s something exciting and special. It’s different from your everyday routine. Then you also are sort of connecting it with those various partisan stimuli, passing people in the street who are on different sides. So, you have a sense of the broader contest that’s going on and not just your own individual judgements.
So, that’s what I think of as being the ideal regime is very, very low barriers to voting accompanied by an experience of voting where people do it all together at the same time.
I thought this was really fascinating, because I thought it had parts that appealed to the left, parts that appealed to the right, and parts that upset both of them for different reasons. You talk about voting as being something that is expansive, that gives everybody an opportunity, bringing down the barriers to make it easy to vote. But at the same time, you really emphasize the importance of voting in person and voting together on the same day. It’s an interesting combination because I’m not sure that there’s any party or that there’s a lot of people that necessarily recognize the benefits to both those different arguments and put that together into a synthesis.
Emilee Booth Chapman
Right. I mean, I think that’s right. The polarization around a lot of this stuff is a more recent phenomenon than this book actually is, but I do think that it’s important to understand… Even if reasonable people could come to the conclusion that the benefits of increased opportunities to vote that are afforded by more convenient opportunities like early voting and mail-in voting, reasonable people could conclude that those benefits outweigh the benefits of having this in person same day experience. But it’s still important to recognize the values that are on the other side.
So, some of what I try and do in the book is to say we don’t have to think of it as a single model of how we vote. That this is the only way for our values to be realized in voting. I think it’s a good model for how that can happen, but it’s also important to recognize that if we do decide to stick with the model of convenience voting, whether people vote by mail or early in person,
that we try and do it in a way that strikes the best balance. So not to say the only thing that there is to worry about is maximizing opportunities. But also, to think, it’s not just about lowering the barriers to voting, but actually giving people positive reasons to vote. The general evidence suggests that there is some turnout boost from making voting a little bit easier, but it’s not as big as you might expect. Part of the reason is that a lot of what’s keeping people from voting is a sense that the political system is not actively drawing them in. So, we need to think about ways to do that. So, I think that there are ways to think about what are better versions of a convenience voting regime than others.
So, one possibility might be to think about a more limited timeframe for voting, not necessarily an election day, but not an election two months either. So, you could think about having a week or two as a limited enough time that people are going to have voting on the brain all more or less around the same time that it can be a subject of conversation, even if people aren’t all necessarily doing it on the same day. But there is still this atmosphere that there’s this concentrated period of time in which people are engaging in this same activity.
So, you can think about lots of public moments that have a longer structure like the Olympics, for example. It lasts for two weeks, but it’s still seen as being a more contained event that can be the subject of public attention. So, that’s sort of one possibility, I think. Another thing to think about is the difference between having convenience voting regimes that offer the maximum of choice versus those that choose one method for everybody to engage in and pump that as being the way that we all do it.
So, my husband is from Oregon and a long-standing debate in our house is over the value of mail-in voting. It’s actually a real source of civic pride I’ve discovered among Oregonians that they had universal mail-in voting before other places did. There is the sense that everybody knows that this is how everybody votes and it is a shared experience even though it’s different. You’re not doing it in the presence of other people, but you do have a sense that other people are doing it in the same way.
So, I think that there’s a lot of value to being physically present with others when you vote. But if you have already moved away from a system in which people do have that physical presence, thinking about ways that we can cultivate a shared experience. A sense that when we vote we are all doing sort of more or less the same thing is I think really valuable. So, it may well be that the sort of second best is actually to have universal mail-in voting rather than the system that California has right now where it’s here are five different ways that you can vote and there’s no sort of clear sort of single message about how to do it.
One of the things that the 2020 election really brought out for me is the possibility that the method of voting can become polarized. This was not really a phenomenon before the 2020 election. You had a lot of mail-in and early voting, but you didn’t have the sense that it was all Democrats doing it or mostly Democrats.
So, once you have that sort of polarization of voting methods, I think you have a real risk of people viewing methods of voting different from their own as less legitimate. I think that’s one reason why we might think that narratives de-legitimizing the 2020 election are able to take off is precisely because people can point to this difference between sort of how they and people they know voted and how the other side voted. There’s a clear story to be able to latch onto there. So, I think that that possibility of polarization in voting method is a good reason to think about trying to make sure that we ensure as much similarity in terms of the method of voting as possible.
Yeah, one of the themes I’ve seen in this election has been that some of the candidates, particularly Democrats, have attacked Republicans as saying that they’re trying to get rid of some of the different options for voting and using that to say that they’re attacking voting rights. And there’s some truth to that, but your point is that that by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s okay to say we’ve got three methods of voting instead of confusing people by having 11 different methods.
But the point that I want to make sure to emphasize here is that it’s not saying that it’s a good thing to just limit the voting. The key behind it is we need to make it easy for people to vote at the same. That’s really the missing piece to the puzzle that sometimes we’re doing when we talk about limiting ways to be able to vote is that we’re not simultaneously making it easy for people to vote through same day registration or other options like that.
One thing that’s been on my mind, especially as we kind of come to a final question, is a lot of these ideas that you’re talking about and ideas that really just everybody in America’s talking about when we think about voting are really borrowed from other places, borrowed from other countries, maybe borrowed from different states. What is a place, whether it’s in the United States or whether it’s a different country, that you look at as being close to a model for you of being just a great place to be able to vote? That accomplishes really the goals that you think should be set out in elections. That makes a lot of sense for you. What would be the closest to the ideal place for voting for you?
Emilee Booth Chapman
So, I think this has been said before, actually even on this podcast, but Australia is an excellent model. The one thing that is most distinct about Australia is that they have compulsory voting. I think that the underlying idea of compulsory voting is this idea that democracy doesn’t just depend on people having this kind of vague, abstract opportunity to participate. But it actually is about making sure that you have the voice of everyone involved in government. So, when you make it mandatory, you say to citizens, ‘Look, we can’t get on without you. Your voice, your contribution is so important to democracy that we think it’s worth compelling.’
Now, I think it’s also important to note the penalties are relatively mild in this regime. So, the fines are quite small and actually it’s only about one in four non-voters in Australia who ends up paying a fine because there are a lot of excuses that are accepted. So, what you get is a letter from the government saying, ‘Hey, you didn’t vote. Why didn’t you vote?’ People can write in and explain. Of course, lots of people still just fall through the bureaucratic cracks. But you still, even with this sort of relatively mild set of penalties and not super strict regime, get around 90% participation which is far above what we have.
So, the general idea is you have this system that consistently expresses the idea that it’s really important that everyone vote and you establish a default sense that this is what we do around here. But in addition to making it compulsory, there are all these other trappings around elections. So, one is it is very easy to vote in Australia. There’s a lot of effort into saying like, ‘Hey, well we’ve said that you have an obligation, so we better make it possible for you to fulfill your obligation.’ There is a sense of public celebration. You know, people like to talk about the democracy sausages. I love this idea. We have a tendency to bureaucratize elections in the United States to make it feel like you’re going to the DMV. That does not seem ideal.
So, this sense of public celebration and then also, of course, the kind of regime of registration that is meant to catch as many people as possible. These are the key elements there that I think our system is missing and I think compulsory voting, provided it can be designed in a healthy way, not to be overly punitive is a great idea. But even if we didn’t have that, I think understanding the spirit that underlies that electoral system of making it easy to vote, making it fun to vote, and making people feel that there’s a sense that voting is the thing that you’re supposed to do as a citizen. These are the key elements that go into making a really good voting regime.
You know, I don’t think you mentioned Australia as your ideal place in the book, but as you were talking throughout this interview, I was thinking, yeah, the ideal place really sounds like Australia. Especially just how excited everybody is to be able to get out to vote, I think that is the key. Thank you so much for joining me today, Emilee. This has been a great conversation. Let me plug the book one more time, Election day: How We Vote and What it Means for Democracy. It goes on sale next week, the 16th. It’s a great read. Thank you so much, Emilee, for joining me.
Emilee Booth Chapman
Thanks very much. It’s been pleasure.
Election Day: How We Vote and What It Means for Democracy by Emilee Booth Chapman
Democracy Paradox Podcast
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