Peter Orszag’s Case for Compulsory Voting

In a recent op ed, former Obama adviser and Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag argues that the the United States should make voting compulsory:

The U.S. prides itself as the beacon of democracy, but it’s very likely no U.S. president has ever been elected by a majority of American adults.

It’s our own fault — because voter participation rates are running below 60 percent, a candidate would have to win 85 percent or more of the vote to be elected by a majority.

Compulsory voting, as exists in Australia and more than two dozen other countries, would fix that problem. As William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues, “Jury duty is mandatory; why not voting?”

Mandating voting has a clear effect: It raises participation rates. Before Australia adopted compulsory voting in 1924, for example, it had turnout rates similar to those of the U.S. After voting became mandatory, participation immediately jumped from 59 percent in the election of 1922 to 91 percent in the election of 1925.

Orszag’s proposal and others like it are potentially harmful solutions to a non-problem. There is no evidence that nations with compulsory voting are, as a result, better governed than those where voting is voluntary. As Tim Cavanaugh points out, the former category includes many states such as Argentina, Lebanon, Egypt, Congo, and others that are hardly paragons of civic virtue. By contrast, one of the few democracies that has even lower turnout rates than the United States is Switzerland, which is widely considered one of the best-governed nations in the world. I am not suggesting that low turnout is the cause of Switzerland’s success; but it certainly hasn’t inhibited it. Orszag himself admits that most political scientists believe that the outcomes of US elections over the last several decades would not have been significantly different if all eligible non-voters had turned out. There is also no reason to believe that a president or Congress elected by a majority of all Americans would be somehow more legitimate or otherwise morally preferable to one elected by a majority of those who voluntarily choose to vote. One cam imagine that an electorate where, say, only 1 percent turn out would be highly unrepresentative and might be perceived as illegitimate by the rest of society. But the same is not true of one where 40 to 60% of eligible voters turn out, as is true in modern US elections.

Orszag worries that without compulsory voting, people will not turn out because doing so isn’t rational:

For economists, the puzzle is not why voting participation rates are so low in voluntary systems, but why they’re so high. The so-called paradox of voting, highlighted in a 1957 book by the political scientist Anthony Downs, occurs because the probability that any individual voter can alter the outcome of an election is effectively zero. So if voting imposes any cost, in terms of time or hassle, a perfectly rational person would conclude it’s not worth doing. The problem is that if each person were to reach such a rational conclusion no one would vote, and the system would collapse.

Mandatory voting solves that collective action problem by requiring people to vote and punishing nonvoters with a fine.

However, the paradox of voting is not a serious enough problem to prevent tens of millions from turning out voluntarily every two years. Moreover, for reasons I explain in this article, it is actually rational to vote despite the low odds of decisiveness so long as the voter believes that there is a substantial difference between the opposing candidates, and cares at least somewhat about the rest of society as well as his own self-interest. To oversimplify the analysis, the low odds of decisiveness are outweighed by the potentially enormous payoff if your vote does turn out to matter. It is also relevant that voting is a low-cost activity that requires little time and effort.

While creating few if any benefits, compulsory voting laws are likely to cause harm. Most obviously, they are an infringement on the liberty of those who choose not to vote, including those who do so because they lack the knowledge needed to make a good decision. If rigorously policed, compulsory voting would also require significant expenditures on enforcement.

Finally, it is likely that those who currently choose not to vote probably have, on average, lower levels of political knowledge than those who do. If so, forcing them to the polls will exacerbate the already serious problem of political ignorance. Unlike voting, acquiring and understanding more than a minimal level of political knowledge is a costly activity, which makes it rational for most voters to stay ignorant, given the low chance that their knowledge will make a difference. This is especially true for those who are not interested in public policy for reasons other than voting. It is possible that many nonvoters are people with little or no interest in politics, and therefore little or no political knowledge.

I do not want to overstate this point, since it’s not clear how great the gap in knowledge between voters and nonvoters actually is. High-knowledge citizens who choose not to vote are more likely to falsely report having voted when asked in surveys, which makes comparisons difficult. Nonetheless, it is at least plausible that compulsory voting will make political ignorance an even more serious problem than it already is. More generally, we should spend less time worrying about turnout and more about whether those who do turn out actually understand what they are voting on.

UPDATE: I have made a few stylistic changes to this post.

UPDATE #2: It might be argued that, if nonvoters do not have electoral preferences significantly different from those who do vote, the potential decline in the average political knowledge of the electorate caused by mandatory voting will not matter. That may be. But knowledge affects more than just preferences between candidates. It also affects preferences on policy issues. A more ignorant electorate could well lead candidates and parties to change their platforms and policies when in office for the worse. That would be significant even if electoral results do not change.

UPDATE #3: In response to some who point to Australia as an example of compulsory voting, I would reiterate that there is little if any evidence that Australia has a better or more legitimate government as a result. Indeed, neighboring New Zealand, which does not have compulsory voting, has a political system that functions just as well or better. More generally, as noted above, nations with compulsory voting don’t seem to have consistently superior government relative to those that don’t.