In our book, “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting,” EJ Dionne and I argue that voting should be a mandatory civic duty for every American citizen.
Universal suffrage could be enacted at the federal level or, more likely, by states or municipalities. If passed, it would significantly increase voter turnout; make the electorate voting a complete reflection of our population; making government more responsive to everyone; improve the nature of our political campaigns; and lessen our toxic bias, at least to some extent.
Universal suffrage has not been seriously discussed in this country, but it is not a new or radical idea. First, the system is used in 26 democratic countries around the world, including Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Greece, Luxembourg, Peru and Uruguay. Processes and practices vary; Australia is probably the best example for us. Compulsory participation has been in place since 1924, almost 100 years. It is a widely accepted part of the country’s democratic process, and there have been no serious attempts to repeal it.
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The Australian Electoral Commission – a non-partisan, well-funded and professional agency – is working hard to register voters and conduct vigorous public education about the upcoming elections, as do political parties and civil society organisations. Citizens are well aware of the upcoming elections and their responsibility to vote.
Last December, 96.3% of Australians were registered, and in the 2019 election (figures are yet to be released for the last election in May), 91.9% of registered voters voted. It is important to note that Australians are not required to vote for any candidate; blank ballots and ballots with comments or cartoons, called “donkey ballots”, are acceptable.
After the election, the lists are reviewed and those who do not vote receive a notice asking why. Almost any reason is accepted, but if there is no response from the non-voter after two attempts, a fine of $20 in Australian currency ($15 in the United States) is imposed. Less than 1% of potential voters were fined; requirement is an integral part of civic culture.
And speaking of culture, elections are held on Saturdays and are festive in nature, with “democracy sausage” stands ubiquitous at nearly every polling station.
For another reason, closer to home, that voting as a civic duty isn’t a radical idea, consider jury service. Everyone is required to serve on juries under civic responsibility. This has been the case for over 100 years, and we accept it as entirely reasonable, even though we may wince when the summons comes.
We believe the same reasoning applies to voting: we want, or should want, that the public policies that affect our lives, and the choices of who will be in power to make them, be made by all of us, fully represented. And universal suffrage will bring us that.
There are also other advantages. We think the nature of campaigns would change for the better. Right now, the “currency of the kingdom” in campaigns is to transform your base and, in the worst case scenario, reduce your opposition’s participation.
If everyone is going to vote, then everyone is listening all the time, and parties and campaigns will have to talk to everyone and have to convince a real majority that their ideas are the best. This will help reduce our toxic and growing polarization.
Evidence also shows that in countries where voting is universal, policies that help reduce inequality enjoy stronger government support, and in our view, this would be a significant benefit.
Universal suffrage is an idea that can advance American democracy toward our stated ideals of a fully inclusive democracy. We’re pushing the idea of “100% democracy” as a North Star goal, and we can’t wait to get the conversation started.
Miles Rapoport is co-author, with EJ Dionne, of “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting”. He is a Senior Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.