Politics & Policy

Mr. President, We Have a Civil Right Not to Vote

Rather than inspire people to show up at the polls, progressives would just as soon make it compulsory.

Since he will never again see his name appear on a ballot, President Obama is finally telling us what he really thinks.

“If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country,” Obama said yesterday at a Cleveland town hall meeting. “It would be transformative if everybody voted.”

He also said it would be “fun” to force through a constitutional amendment restricting the free-speech rights of Americans to contribute money to politics. Fun?

Mr. President, we wouldn’t be America anymore with forced voting and people fined or jailed for using the First Amendment to express political views.

When it comes to voting, only eleven nations in the world actually enforce laws requiring people to vote. Several nations have tried them and dropped the idea, including Chile, Fiji, and Italy, which rescinded the policy in 1993. “There was finally a consensus that it was a basic infringement of freedom,” says Antonio Martino, a former Italian foreign minister. “Forcing people to vote violates their freedom of speech, because the freedom to speak includes the right not to speak.”

Indeed, not voting can send a message just as much as voting. If times are good and major parties are in broad agreement on major issues, a low voter turnout can be a sign of a healthy democracy. Similarly, in times of discontent when major parties are not offering up clear and compelling alternatives, non-voting signals that the legitimacy of the process is being questioned.

President Obama gave his real motivation away during his Cleveland riff by noting that Democrats stayed home in last November’s election, in which his party was crushed. It won’t surprise you that his motivation is political. Recall his famous post-election comment that he also heard the voices of Americans who didn’t vote. This week the president said “the people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups. We should want to get them into the polls.” But rather than blame himself or his party for the failure to inspire his ostensible supporters to vote, the president is turning to the idea of dragooning them to the ballot box.

The columnist George Will once said: “Really up-to-date liberals do not care what people do, as long as it is compulsory.” President Obama has joined their ranks.

Nor is he alone. Oregon governor Kate Brown has just signed into law a requirement that everyone in the state be automatically registered to vote based on information the Department of Motor Vehicles has in its electronic files.

Liberals justify such actions by claiming that people aren’t voting because they don’t have enough chances to register to vote. But the U.S. Census Bureau disagrees. It has long published reports on election turnout and the reasons people don’t vote. As my co-author Hans von Spakovsky has pointed out:

For example, of the 146 million people who the Census Bureau reported were registered to vote in 2008, 15 million (10 percent) did not vote. Of those who did not vote, only 6 percent cited registration problems as the reason for not participating. Rather, the vast majority of these registered but nonvoters said they did not vote for reasons ranging from forgetting to vote to not liking the candidates or the campaign issues or simply not being interested . . . The Census Bureau’s 2008 report demonstrates that the major reason individuals failed to register was that they were not “interested in the election/not involved in politics.” That represented 46 percent of the individuals in the Census Bureau’s survey. Another 35 percent of individuals did not register for a variety of reasons such as not being eligible to vote, thinking their vote would not make a difference, not meeting residency requirements, or difficulty with English.

And those responses were in 2008 — the year turnout went up amid “hope and change.”

It is entirely rational for someone to think his vote might not make a difference, either because the candidates don’t represent real change or because of the simple laws of mathematics. As Ilya Somin, an assistant professor of law at George Mason University, points out: “Even a smart and hardworking person can rationally decide not to pay much attention to politics. No matter how well-informed a person is, his or her vote has only a tiny chance of affecting the outcome of an election.” Do we want to deny such persons their freedom by forcing them to make a choice they view as either unpalatable or meaningless?

Liberals tend to see anything that increases voter turnout as a positive for democracy. “The more people who are exercising that right (to vote) the better,” asserts a Slate article on Oregon’s new mandatory voter registration. That’s one reason liberals give such short shrift to measures to promote ballot security and reduce fraud. Conservatives, on the other hand, often emphasize the rule of law and the fact that if procedures aren’t followed not every ballot is a valid vote. That can sometimes lead them to not see the forest for the trees.

But what both sides should agree on is that nothing good comes of coercing people into voting. The idea has, of course, been tried in countries ranging from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to the old Soviet Union. It’s also been tried in free countries, but half of them no longer enforce the requirement and in several of the others enforcement is sporadic. By resurrecting the discredited idea of mandatory voting, President Obama has shown that, even as he touts his old stint as a constitutional law instructor, he gets a failing grade when it comes to understanding the notion of liberty.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.

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