Goldberg: A Persistent Myth of Voter Turnout

I have long opposed making voting compulsory, an idea that pops up every few years. I still don’t like the idea. But it got more appealing, at least as a thought experiment.

The arguments against forcing people to vote – as Australia and a handful of other countries do – range from the constitutional (it’s a forced speech) to the cultural (it’s America, dagnabbit) to the practical and the partisan.

Historically, the practical case is that it is the wrong solution that pursues a non-existent problem. Proponents of compulsory voting believe that low voter turnout is a sign of civic decay and democratic entropy. This view, arguably accurate or at least plausible to some, misses the fact that for many other Americans, not voting is a sign of general satisfaction. We had record attendance in 2020. Raise your hand if you think this was proof that America’s civic and democratic commitments are stronger than ever.

More importantly, if the vote is virtuous, its virtue — like any virtue — stems from its voluntariness. Constrained virtue is an oxymoron.

Partisanship enters the equation because both parties subscribe to a tenacious myth: that increased voter turnout automatically favors Democrats. So if everyone were forced to vote – many opponents and supporters believe – an imaginary reserve army of leftist voters would overwhelm the polls. This belief plays an important role for those who want to make voting easier and for those who want to make it harder.

The problem: it’s not true. Yes, of course, it is by voting more of your own voters that you win the election, but if everyone voted, it is unlikely that one party will always benefit more than the other. As Daron Shaw and John R. Petrocik demonstrate in their book “The Turnout Myth”, “there is no systematic or consistent partisan bias regarding turnout”. Virginia’s recent gubernatorial race saw strong turnout and Republicans routed Democrats.

Partisan Democrats have all kinds of noble and sincere reasons for making it easier for black voters in particular and disadvantaged communities in general to vote. But on a practical level, whether they think those voters will vote disproportionately Democratic determines many of their policy preferences. Partisan Republicans ignore lofty arguments and focus on the Democratic advantage they see in such efforts. Meanwhile, Democrats assume that any concern about voter fraud or integrity is a ruse to disenfranchise voters.

Republicans also tend to suffer from a strange cognitive dissonance. They fear that if everyone votes, the GOP will lose; they have also convinced themselves that Democrats only win by “importing” voters (i.e. immigrants) and through fraud.

Each party believes – without proof – that it has the people on its side and that if the elections went “properly”, it would be the majority party. For Democrats, that means cutting the “big bucks” in elections and, lately, federalizing election rules to fight voter suppression. For Republicans, that means responding to Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories and psephological rantings.

More broadly, both sides ignore the proximity of their victories and act as if they have a mandate to behave as if they are backed by super majorities. They then devote their energies to flattering both rhetorically and politically the thin slice of electorate that constitutes their base. The incentive to appeal to the broad middle is surprisingly weak, even though politicians, like Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin last year or Joe Biden in 2020, owe their victories to the persuasive middle.

The incentives to pander to hyper-partisanship are all too familiar: the pernicious effect of our primary system, self-sorting polarization, an ideologically biased media ecosystem, and the ease of garnering small donations from partisan superfans. President Biden’s very tone-deaf speech on the right to vote and Senator Ted Cruz’s capitulation to Tucker Carlson’s fantasies on January 6 are recent examples of this perverse dynamic.

And that’s what attracts me to compulsory voting. If everyone voted – even once – it could dispel the myth that either party speaks for an untapped silent majority. The incentive to increase the base participation rate would fade. Low voter turnout — which benefits incumbents and their special-interest allies — would not skew election results. Candidates, elected officials and major donors would ignore electoral majorities at their peril.

I still oppose this solution, but at least the case of compulsory voting is no longer a solution in pursuit of a problem. Even as a thought experiment, it helps illuminate the real issues we face.

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