From the Opinion Panel: Is compulsory voting the answer to ailing democracy?

Saturday, July 23, 2022 

Some two dozen countries have compulsory voting. In Europe, it’s seen as a counterpunch to the voter suppression laws being passed across the country, but Americans remain skeptical. Would it work here?

A voter turning ballots in Boulder County (courtesy Eric Budd)

Ted Rockwell: Reward voters, don’t punish them

Compulsory voting would be a great solution to increase civic engagement and reduce voter disenfranchisement. In the current era of “corporations are people,” every person’s vote becomes essential to maintaining a representative democracy. Perhaps our elections would become more seriously tied to meaningful issues or even promote a more educated electorate. 

I’d suggest any sort of compulsory voting be a reward for voting rather than a punishment for those who don’t. I maintain this opinion primarily because Americans have a predisposition to maintain a skeptical view of mandatory governmental rules. 

A tiny “I Voted” sticker has been a good enough reward for this writer, but Americans like their freebies and deals. How about providing a tax break to all those who vote? Or a waiver on a portion of their driver’s license fees? Or a forever stamp to be used on the envelope of their next letter to congressional representatives? In order for some of these ideas to be possible in Colorado, the legal framework would need to be adjusted. For instance, the tax break or fees waiver would not be allowed under current state law.

I simply refuse to give in to the cynicism used by those who would oppose compulsory voting. Two of the most common arguments opposing the concept of compulsory voting don’t hold up under close scrutiny. 

“This would violate my freedom of choice,” is a familiar refrain. This argument collapses on its own premise; by “choosing” not to participate, the non-voter is effectively empowering others to make choices for them. 

“The electorate will be uneducated and vote randomly,” is another favorite trope of the anti-compulsory voting crowd. The ridiculousness of these arguments is obvious when you put them together in a single sentence; “Compulsory voting is an infringement on my freedom, but I don’t trust anyone else to vote either.”

I’ve got another idea that could potentially solve all of this — let’s just put it to a vote!

Ted Rockwell is a senior communications and marketing professional specializing in public post-secondary, online and continuing education. More about Ted.

Doug Hamilton: Who has time for voting?

Voting is just a single piece of civic participation. Without focusing on our entire system of civic participation, compulsory voting will do little to increase engagement.

Let’s face it: Only those people with lots of free time and money, and not otherwise engaged in productive labor, have time for participating in politics or voting. Voting for government representatives is generally seen as a hobby of the aristocratic class because they had lots of free time. Ancient Athenians and multiple other societies throughout the ages have recognized this fact, and generally found sortition (like jury duty) to pick legislative bodies to be more democratic.    

If you want more people to vote, they have to have more free time, like aristocrats, to engage in politics and civic life — time they are not working to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.  Making voting compulsory, without more, will do little other than exacerbate the already gaping disparities between our working, coordinator and owner classes. 

Advancements in technology should mean that people can work less at a job and have more time for other activities in their lives. The opposite is true.  Most of us remember a time without cell phones or computers, when you left the office at the office; now we carry our office in our pockets and work all the time. If we are working all the time, we barely have time for our families, let alone time to engage in political discourse with our neighbors or voting.  

We should not be compelling voting without compelling shorter work weeks or mandatory time off for civic engagement — maybe 40 hours a month per employee to spend how the employee wants. We need to pass laws that protect workers from being fired for civic participation, especially when that participation is against the interest of their employers. For self-employed and unemployed people, including children and elderly, we need to pay them a living wage to engage in civic engagement.

Doug Hamilton is a parent, lawyer, engineer and human who believes in free public spaces and a more participatory society. More about Doug.

Ryan Bonick: American government should represent America

Voting is a core part of our democracy, and should be treated as such. By mandating voting, we can create a representative government that truly reflects our society. 

People who vote are not representative of the American people. Voters are typically older, wealthier and whiter than non-voting Americans. And they are a minority: In 2016, if “not voting” was a presidential candidate, it would have won over both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Midterm elections and odd-year (often just local offices) have even lower turnout. It is no surprise that our representatives in the federal government reflect this minority voter bloc. 

Who is left out? Non-voters trend younger, lower-income, and more ethnically and racially diverse. Regardless of the reasons behind non-voting — whether active voter suppression, inability to take time off on Election Day, or simply feeling like their vote doesn’t matter — we should all agree that, as a representative democracy, our representatives should reflect our society as a whole. 

By making voting a mandatory requirement (like paying your taxes) instead of an optional task, we can shift the responsibility of voting away from individuals and toward the government. It would fall on the government to make it easy to vote (like how Colorado mails all voters their ballots several weeks before elections), figure out why remaining people don’t vote, and solve any barriers in the way.

The end result should be a government far more reflective of the entire population’s beliefs and opinions, rather than just a subset.

While I don’t expect mandatory voting to take effect any time soon, especially at a federal level, I think any efforts to increase voter turnout, like the recent proposal to move Boulder elections to even years, should be celebrated as a step on the path to truly accurate representation in our government.

Ryan Bonick is a Boulder non-native renter who loves biking and bussing around town. More about Ryan.


Boulder Beat Opinion Panel members are writing in their own capacity. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of Boulder Beat.

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