Civil Rights

Universal voting would be good for our democracy

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The 2014 midterm election saw the lowest voter turnout rate in over 70 years, with just over 36 percent of eligible voters taking part. In fact, voter participation has been steadily declining since 1964. Even in the historic 2008 election, voter participation was just short of 62 percent. Worldwide, the U.S. lags far behind most developed countries in voter turnout rates and our democracy is worse off for it.

{mosads}A few days ago, President Obama floated the idea of universal voting — which would require all eligible citizens to vote — to address the low rates of voter turnout. At least 32 countries have some form of universal voting for at least one office or in at least one jurisdiction. For those that do not want to vote as a political act, a “none of the above” option is an alternative, as is a nonpunitive fine that would incentive participation but not punish those who choose to exercise their right not to vote. Countries with universal voting have turnout rates anywhere between 7 and 16 percentage points higher than the U.S.

Universal voting could bring tens of millions more voters to the polls, which of course is the problem. Voting is one of the few antidotes we have to the outsized influence money plays in our electoral system. Wealthy and corporate interests dominate our current electoral system. The Koch brothers’ network alone will spend $900 million in the next election to fund candidates who will protect their interests. In turn, the policies advanced by our elected officials will reflect the interests of the Kochs and their network of 300 donors and not the interests of average Americans. This dynamic is the reason why the minimum wage remains stagnant year after year while the capital gains tax rate remains low, despite the fact that many more people would benefit from a minimum wage increase than benefit from a low capital gains tax rate.

However, at the end of the day, elected officials need to be voted into office. More people voting means wealthy campaign donors have less influence because elected officials will have to be more responsive to their voting constituents and not just to donors. This threat is one of the fundamental reasons why anti-voting advocates have launched a full-on assault against the right to vote. Since 2010, 180 restrictive voting bills have been introduced in 41 states, making it even harder for eligible voters to access their constitutionally protected right to vote. To put it bluntly: People wouldn’t be trying so hard to take away the right to vote if it weren’t so powerful.

Moving to a universal voting system could stop the push toward making voting more restrictive. If voting were required for all eligible citizens, officials could work to make it as accessible as possible. Right now, Election Day is on a workday, rather than on the weekend, which in and of itself makes it more difficult for working Americans. Voter ID laws, shortened early voting periods and an overly complicated voter registration system also make it more difficult for eligible voters to vote. Coupled with automatic voter registration, universal voting could streamline the voting process and make our democracy stronger.

Like health insurance, voting is good for our society. Rather than causing the world to end, ObamaCare resulted in millions of previously uninsured individuals having access to healthcare. The healthcare system still needs improvement, but it is more accessible now than ever before. Universal voting has the potential to do the same for our democracy. More people voting will result in a more representative government. Voting is one of the few tools we have left to combat the toxic influence of money in our electoral and political systems. For our democracy to be strong, we must expand, not contract, voter access and engagement.

Cha is a fellow at Cornell University’s Worker Institute.

Tags Election Day Elections Mandatory voting Universal voting Voter turnout Voting
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