Mandatory voting changes a right and a privilege into a duty and obligation. It transforms the symbol and mechanism of a democratic citizen’s freedom and authority into an instrument of government oppression.
In Australia, the poster child for mandatory voting, a citizen who fails to register or vote can be subject to fines and imprisonment. The mandatory voting law creates, in essence, a reverse poll tax. Instead of paying a tax to be allowed to vote, Australians are taxed if they do not vote. A columnist in Australia noted the oppression that comes from mandatory voting:
People have been sentenced to jail terms for not voting. It’s disgusting. It’s far from being democratic. We are not a democracy if we can’t vote democratically.
Supporters of mandatory voting claim that it increases voter knowledge and engagement, but there is no evidence that it has done so in the countries that have mandatory voting. Instead, out of protest or from feeling that their vote is meaningless, many voters become purposely ignorant, vote randomly (“donkey vote”), spoil their ballots, or at a minimum, resent the process.
Paula Matthewson, a political commentator in Australia who deliberately does not vote and pays the fine instead, scoffs at the idea that mandatory voting has increased voter knowledge and engagement. In fact, the opposite has occurred:
The idea that high voter turnout based on compulsory voting translates into a politically engaged electorate is nonsensical. If we moved to a voluntary system, with the level of disenchantment and disengaged voters we have now, no one would vote.
In the United States, there would be two major constitutional hurdles to imposing mandatory voting on a national level. First, the First Amendment protects not only the right to speak but also the right not to speak. Voting and not voting are forms of speech, if crude ones, and the government cannot force a citizen to speak. Second, Congress has little authority to regulate elections; most authority is placed in the states.