What if voting were mandatory?

In Australia, voter turnout is 90%. Here, less than 50%

How many winning U.S. presidential candidates since 1900 have received at least 50% of the votes of all registered voters?

Answer: Zero.



That's right, not one. But even more stunning is the fact that if you take a failure to vote as equaling "none of the above" (NOA), then NOA has been the top choice of registered voters in 28 of the 30 presidential elections in that time period.

Only McKinley in 1900 with 37.7% of registered voters versus 26.8% NOA and Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 with 36.7% of registered voters versus 34.8% NOA buck the trend.



Registered voter turnout has exceeded 60% only 11 times since 1900. In 1920, 1924 and 1996 voter turnout was under 50%.

The result is that whomever is elected president has the actual support of only a small fraction of registered voters.

In 2016 44.3% of registered voters did not vote, Clinton was supported by 26.8%, Trump by 25.7% and third party candidates got 3.2%.

Voter turnout in primaries is often even lighter.

What is the impact of high levels of voter nonparticipation on the candidates we get? In primary nominating contests with multiple candidates, an extreme candidate with a small but passionate following can rise to the top because more moderate votes are spread out over a range of moderate candidates.

That scenario occurred in the 2016 Republican presidential nominating contests and appears to be playing out this year in the Democratic primaries.

In general elections, if faced with a choice of two extremes, moderate registered voters may choose the NOA option and not vote. Then it becomes a contest of which extreme can get its base to the polls.

In such an environment, extreme candidates who are elected are less likely to compromise because their base may equate compromise with selling out and result in a challenge from an even more extreme candidate in their party come the next election. The result is polarized partisan deadlock.

However, if candidates knew that regardless of the primaries, in every general election there was going to be 90%-plus voter participation, they would tend to take more moderate positions to appeal to the majority of voters and hopefully follow through on them.

So should voting become a responsibility rather than a right?

A number of democracies have made voting in general elections a compulsory duty of citizens, similar to paying taxes and being considered for jury duty. Australia, Belgium, Costa Rica and Uruguay are a few examples.

In Australia 67% of voters support the compulsory voting laws, where noncompliance results in a fine. There is no requirement that the ballot (which is secret) needs to have a choice made on it, so you can still choose not to support any candidates in a race.

Elections are on weekends with Election Day a national holiday. Provisions are made for voting early because of of travel or work conflicts and excuses are given for unexpected issues like illness or a death in the family.

The result is Australia generally has a 90%-plus turnout of registered voters and while some extremes do get elected, there is a tendency for more moderate candidates to flourish.

Some may object that maybe the registered voters who don't vote are not informed and should not vote. I would argue that if people knew they had to show up, they would be more likely to look at candidates and make a decision.

At this time I am unaware of any organization in the U.S. that is advocating compulsory general election voting.

Until there is, the beginning of the solution to the current political climate is up to each of you. So look at the array of candidates in all parties having primaries and vote March 17 in the primary of your choice.

Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Dr. Soltys of Springfield is a retired physician who teaches on a voluntary basis at SIU School of Medicine.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment