Are Compulsory Voting and Automatic Voter Registration Conundrums to Democracy?
Two issues have recently surfaced regarding voting in the United States that challenge the definition of democracy: compulsory voting and automatic voter registration. At a city hall meeting this Wednesday in Cleveland, President Obama voiced his opinion on compulsory voting. Obama said, ” We shouldn’t be making it harder to vote, we should be making it easier to vote.” He adds, “It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything.”
Surface level, the idea of compulsory voting seems encouraging, right? Let’s break this down further to investigate what this means. According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, “There are currently 26 countries instituting compulsory voting.” Countries such as Australia and Belgium even enforce not voting with punishable fines. This is one way to encourage civilians to exercise their civic duty, but it is also a challenge to freedom; the very concept that our nation was founded on. Freedom does not only mean having rights to exercise, but it can equally mean having the ability to not exercise those rights.
It has been brought to our attention that the benefits of compulsory voting include having voting polls open to voters on weekends when they are available outside of their working day. This would combat one nuisance of having to leave the workplace to vote. Another innovative concept to compulsory voting is the use of mobile voting booths that serve any immobile citizen. In regards to voting logistics, these are all valid points. It is even said that many countries that do practice compulsory voting allow for voters to cast blank ballots or select “none of the above” as their ballot selection. While this clears voters from the punishable fines, if a voter is casting a blank ballot, how is that different than not voting at all?
Riding the same rails as compulsory voting, this week Governor Kate Brown approved a bill that automatically registers anyone with an Oregon driver’s license since 2013 to vote. As a voting advocate, I recognize that bills like this are expected to add 300,000 + ballots to Oregon elections and could potentially increase voting rates in the U.S. dramatically. As an advocate of the First Amendment though, I also recognize that bills like this could infringe on the right to practice religion freely. Some religions value the right to not participate in politics at all.
These two concepts that were introduced publicly this week raise many concerns on the future of democracy. Although compulsory voting and mandatory registration are just words, when placed next to democracy and freedom they appear to me as antonyms packaged elegantly and presented to us as shiny gifts.