Coercive Voting Undermines Political Voice

Every election year triggers widespread efforts to browbeat voters into exercising their franchise in November. Now, several political pundits are going further, pushing the idea that government should make Americans vote.
In one sense, this is a natural progression. Those who want government, whose only comparative advantage is coercion, to be involved everywhere, wouldn’t see a problem with coercing people to vote. Unfortunately, coercive voting would be just one more example of government’s besetting sin—the forcible imposition of stupid ideas—because every “must vote” argument is seriously flawed.

If you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice in government. This is one of many arguments based on the false premise your vote will affect what passes and who is elected. But your vote will make no difference in the outcome. You will prosper or suffer under the same laws and representatives if you voted for the winner or the loser, or didn’t vote at all.

If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about government. This also makes the false assumption that your vote will alter the outcome. But even if your vote determined the result, binary choices between “electable” candidates and yes or no votes on initiatives written to benefit special interests at others’ expense hardly empowers you to invoke your preferences.

If you don’t vote, you don’t care about America. No amount of caring for America justifies voting if that vote doesn’t alter the outcome. Abstaining has been common from the foundation of our country (though unlike today, it then largely reflected the fact the government had little power to hurt or help you), when new citizens who had put their lives on the line cared a great deal.

Many brave Americans have died to defend your right to vote. Those who fought to found and preserve our country did so for our liberty, not for our right to vote. Even a little knowledge of the Federalist or Anti-Federalist Papers reveals the key was not the right to vote (e.g., all the references to the tyranny of the majority), but a Constitution that severely circumscribed government’s ability to abuse (i.e. coerce) its citizens. This is why the Supreme Court can override majority votes when they conflict with the Constitution. And if the right to vote were important enough to die for, why has turnout never approached 100 percent?

It is your duty to vote. Voting is a citizen’s right–implying the right to abstain–not a duty. I have a right to become drunk, divorced and destitute, but that does not give me the duty to do any of them. And if one is not highly informed on the issues, as is true of most who must be forced to vote, casting an uninformed vote is a dereliction of duty, rather than a fulfillment of one’s duty, to other Americans, contributing no wisdom to electoral results.

You must vote, because the electoral process would collapse if everyone chose not to vote. Beyond the insignificant probability of everyone abstaining, this is just the common “if everyone” fallacy. Unless your choice of whether to vote alters many others’ choices about whether to and/or how to vote, which is unlikely, this is irrelevant to whether you should vote (though politicians must, as witnessed by the harassment any candidate gets if he ever failed to vote in some election).

Not only would coercive voting back bad arguments with the force of law, it would undermine Americans’ political voices in an important way. It would eliminate citizens’ ability to abstain as their only way of voting “a pox on both your houses” in protest of a constitutionally overgrown government that metastasized with bi-partisan support. In other words, it would eliminate what is typically the only way of voting consistent with advancing Americans’ general welfare—endorsing “none of the above.”

(Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University in Malibu.)