What if voting were not just a right, but a legally required duty?
Numerous Democrats in the Washington Legislature are backing a new proposal to make voting in elections compulsory. Citizens are required by law to cast ballots in about 25 counties, but in no other U.S. states.
Republicans in Olympia described the idea as "un-American."
State Sen. Sam Hunt (D-Olympia) said he got the idea for what he calls "universal civic duty voting" from a recently published book titled "100% Democracy" by E.J. Dionne and Miles Rapoport. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane mailed Hunt a copy last year.
"As a member of the Senate, once the majority leader sends you something, it sort of gets your attention," Hunt said in an interview. "So, I read the book and it piqued an interest with me."
So much so, Hunt had the concept of compulsory voting turned into a legislative proposal. Billig’s enthusiasm separately inspired state Rep. Sharlett Mena (D-Tacoma) to introduce an identical version of the legislation in the state House.
The pending bills would require all eligible Washingtonians to register to vote. Then when your ballot comes in the mail, you'd be legally required to return it for every primary and general election, although there would be no punishment if you didn’t. You could also cast a blank ballot if you wanted, or get off the voter roll permanently by filling out a conscientious objector form. Compulsory voting would take effect in Washington state in 2026 if the bill passes.
"Just like paying taxes and signing up for the draft for all males, it's just another civic duty that we would require people to do," Hunt said.
Backers of universal voting claim it would reduce divisiveness and polarization in politics by prompting candidates to appeal to a broader electorate, especially to groups who now vote at lower rates, such as young voters, minorities and lower income folks.
"Democracy and voting is a basic part of our country and the more we get involved, I think the better and the stronger our government is," Hunt argued.
Chief sponsors Hunt and Mena have won over no Republicans to their proposal.
"To me, this is an unconstitutional, un-American distraction," said state Sen. Jeff Wilson, the ranking Republican on the Senate State Government and Elections Committee. That panel will be the first to scrutinize the proposal.
Wilson said he foresees legal trouble in compelling people to speak through their vote.
"Of course you have the right to speak, you have the right to vote, but you also have the same right to not," Wilson said in an interview. "Sometimes silence is golden. Sometimes silence can be measured. But it certainly shouldn't be expected in the form of a ballot."
Even though there’s no penalty for failure to vote, Wilson still objected.
"There's no consequence now, but what would keep it from having a consequence later. That's something to be very concerned about," Wilson said.
Compulsory voting mandated overseas and in Latin America
About two dozen foreign countries require their citizens to vote. Enforcement varies widely from getting into deep trouble for abstaining in North Korea to no consequence at all in places such as Greece, Fiji, Honduras and Egypt. Where there is enforcement, voter turnout is markedly better than in the U.S.
Backers of universal voting often hold up Australia as their model. It consistently has one of the highest rates of voter turnout in the world at over 90 percent. The Australian Electoral Commission enforces the rule with a fine starting at AU$20 – around US$14.
"I really don't think at this point it is fear of a fine that is driving people to the booth," Australian journalist Amelia Ballinger told SkyNews. "The very large majority of the voting public in Australia supports compulsory voting. They want to participate."
University of Sydney research fellow Sarah Cameron told the BBC that compulsory voting could tilt elections to the left.
"In countries with voluntary voting, people of lower socio-economic status are less likely to turn out to vote. These are groups that are more likely to support parties on the left," Cameron explained. "So, the effect is that when voting is compulsory, parties on the left benefit."
Some American academics doubt this would be the case in the U.S.
“The evidence shows it would have little effect on election outcomes because non‐voters tend to break down about the same as for voters in their partisan preferences,” wrote Cato Institute adjunct scholar Andy Craig.
The Knight Foundation surveyed 12,000 chronic non-voters nationwide in 2020. If those respondents were compelled to vote, the results showed they would add nearly equal share to Democratic and Republican candidates (33 percent versus 30 percent, respectively), while 18 percent said they would vote for a third party.
Voter turnout is already comparatively high in the Pacific Northwest
There’s also a question whether a legal requirement to vote is needed. American states that make it easy to register to vote and then send every voter a ballot in the mail, such as Oregon and Washington, have better voter turnout than some of the foreign countries that require all citizens to vote but don't enforce that rule.
Ninety percent of eligible voters in Washington state were registered to vote ahead of the 2020 election, according to the Elections Division at the Washington Secretary of State. Registered voter turnout in the general election topped 84% in that presidential year. In the November 2022 midterm elections, 64% of Washington voters cast a ballot.
For comparison, in Mexico, where voting is an obligation but there is no penalty, the average turnout in recent federal elections was 54%. Similarly, the last two parliamentary elections in Greece had turnout between 57%-58%.
At the Washington state capital, the compulsory voting legislation has a long road ahead, but it does have co-sponsorship from nearly half of the Democratic majority in the state Senate. Chief sponsors Hunt and Mena said that compulsory voting might be one of those proposals that take a couple of sessions for lawmakers and the public to warm up to.
Hunt said he invited the co-author of the “100% Democracy” book, former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, as well as the Speaker of the New South Wales Parliament’s legislative assembly to address the state Senate Elections Committee, which Hunt chairs, on January 31 for an initial hearing. Mena said a public hearing in the state House could follow, but she did not anticipate the legislation would move all the way to the governor’s desk this year.
First-term lawmaker Mena said she acted out of concern that her ethnically-diverse legislative district centered on South Tacoma has among the lowest voter turnout in the state.
“My motivation is the idea that we should have this conversation about how to get to 100% democracy,” Mena said Tuesday.