Making a Case for Universal Civic Duty Voting
It’s time to start talking about what universal voting would look like in the United States says Miles Rapoport
Originally published by Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative Social Impact Review ↗️
Written by Miles Rapoport
As leaders work to make the 2020 elections free and fair and meet a myriad of challenges to doing so, it is important to remember our election system has two critical and longstanding problems that are barriers to achieving full and inclusive representation: consistently low voter participation and an electorate still deeply unreflective of our country’s increasingly diverse population.
The solution to both problems is difficult but straightforward: make voting a universal civic duty. This is not a novel idea; this requirement is in effect in 26 countries around the globe, as diverse as Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Ecuador, Greece, Singapore, Switzerland, and Uruguay. In Australia, participation in elections has been mandatory since 1924. The government, at all levels, makes major efforts to enroll people, and there are energetic public education efforts by political parties, schools, and civil society organizations alike to inform people of their responsibilities. Election day is a major day of community celebration.
In Australia, participation is mandatory, but voters may cast a blank ballot or provide a “valid and sufficient reason” not to vote; therefore, voting for a candidate is not required. After the election, people who did not participate are sent a letter asking the reason. If no reason is supplied after two attempts, people are fined the equivalent of about $15. The system is accepted as a way of life, and there has been no serious effort to change it for years.
“We are in a moment when old assumptions are being challenged, and leaders are being called to look openly and thoughtfully at bold new ideas that are being raised”
Yet, there has been virtually no discussion of this potentially game-changing policy in the United States; it is time to begin this discussion. The Universal Voting Working Group is a collaborative effort of 27 scholars, advocates, and election experts who have studied this issue for two years. It has been a joint project of the Brookings Institution and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
On July 20, 2020, the Working Group released our report: “Lift Every Voice: The Urgency of Universal Civic Duty Voting.” Our conclusion is that making voting a universal civic duty, which could be done at the federal, state, or municipal level, would have major benefits for American democracy.
First, it would dramatically increase voter participation in elections. In the 2018 elections, the United States achieved a record for a midterm election, and people celebrated that fact. Yet, voter turnout was still an anemic rate of 53.4%; in 2014, voter turnout was 42%. Contrast that with Australia, Belgium, and Uruguay, where voter participation rates are have remained near 90% for the last two decades.
If we adopted universal civic voting, participation would also be far more reflective of the voting age population. In the US, voting rates are dramatically skewed by income, education, age, and race. Participation rates in Latinx communities and among voters with only a high school education and voters aged 18–29 are well below the rates of older, white, more educated voters. It is a certainty that these differences would narrow if everyone had a well-publicized civic responsibility to vote.
One of the reasons jury service is mandatory is to assure that jurors will reflect the population as a whole, and as a result, juries will render fairer judgments for every defendant. In fact, a major goal of the civil rights movement in the South was to win the right of African-Americans to be required to serve on juries. We believe the same logic applies to voting. Near universal participation from our racially and ethnically diverse voting-eligible population will yield fairer representation and more responsive policies on a variety of issues.
The potential adoption of universal civic duty voting would also have significant collateral benefits. It would strongly incentivize local and state election officials to shift away from electoral policies that erect barriers to voting. Even more encouraging, policies like same-day registration, uniform restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, paid time off to vote and expanded early and mail-in voting would likely see broader adoption. If every 18-year-old were required to vote, schools would have a powerful strong incentive to provide robust civic education. Civic organizations could invest more in public education about voting — and spend less on expensive efforts to increase voter turnout.
It is also likely that campaigns would change for the better. If everyone is voting, then hopefully everyone is listening, and candidates and parties will need to make efforts to attract broad support. Rallying their own base, and discouraging opponents’ supporters from turning out, would be a largely ineffective strategy.
There will certainly be objections to the idea of civic duty voting. Libertarians will be concerned about any additional government mandates and could challenge its constitutionality. Among advocates for low income and historically marginalized communities, the idea of a fine, even a small one, may raise alarms; and immigrant communities will worry about inadvertent violations by non-citizens.
The Working Group took all these objections seriously. We believe the proposal is constitutional since a blank ballot or a vote for “none of the above”, or acceptance of a conscientious objection to voting will assure voters of their ability to “speak” as they wish. Our proposals for enforcement are relatively ‘light touch’ and designed to be so. We make multiple recommendations for graduated implementation, community service requirements as an alternative to fines, and the possible use of incentives as opposed to penalties, to minimize any potential adverse impacts of any enforcement mechanisms.
We are in a moment when old assumptions are being challenged, and leaders are being called to look openly and thoughtfully at bold new ideas that are being raised. Universal civic duty voting is such an idea, and it is a conversation that should begin no later than today.
About the Author
Miles Rapoport, a longtime organizer, policy advocate, and elected official, brings to the Ash Center four decades of experience working to strengthen democracy and democratic institutions in the United States. Prior to his appointment to the Ash Center, Rapoport was most recently president of the independent grassroots organization Common Cause. For 13 years, he headed the public policy center Demos.
Rapoport previously served as Connecticut’s Secretary of the State and a state legislator for ten years in Hartford. He has written, spoken, and organized widely on issues of American democracy. He was a member of the Harvard class of 1971.