Compulsory Voting and the Paradox of Voting

The paradox of voting, also called the Downs Paradox, states that for rational, self-interested individuals the costs of voting will usually exceed the benefits of voting. For many, the benefits of voting are nil. Local politics aside, it is a statistical impossibility for one vote to swing an election. For the politically inclined, the act of voting “is expressive rather than instrumental: a feeling that one has done one’s duty to society…and to one’s self” (Shklar, 26). Given that turnout rates for presidential elections over the last century around 60% and midterm elections average a turnout of roughly 40%, it follows that roughly 50% of possible voters either see the cost of voting as too high, the benefits of voting too small, or they simply lack the “duty” that Shklar references (Fairvote). Increasing voter turnout should be a moral imperative. If roughly 50% of the nation is not heard at the polls, then who, exactly, is the government serving? Sure, they serve a “majority” of the country, but if one-half of the country doesn’t show up then the government might not take the country’s actual interests into consideration. In order to resolve this paradox, and ensure that the government serves the people in its entirety, the United States federal government should enact compulsory voting.

Political legitimacy, the source of a government’s authority, in a democracy is inextricably linked to voter turnout. The history of suffrage in the United States illustrates this point very clearly. When only white, propertied men could vote, the government served their interests and their interests alone. No consideration was given to the plight of the working class for whom property was elusive, no consideration was given to the question of slavery until the moral imperative reached critical heights, and the issues uniquely facing women were not considered until women gained the right to vote. In order for the government’s legitimacy to be universal, suffrage must not only be universal, but everyone who can vote, must vote.

If compulsory voting is too far, perhaps a lighter alternative might be to make voting day a national holiday. Too many Americans can’t vote because of work, or child care responsibilities. Making voting day a national holiday provides the working class the opportunity to make their voices heard at the polls. The paradox of voting seems to be most true for the poor and ostracized. Ironically, these groups, in my opinion, deserve to be heard by the government the most. Compulsory voting, or at least a national holiday for voting, will ensure that their voices are heard.

Shklar, Jutith N. American Citizenship. Harvard University Press. Cambridge Massachusets. 1991. Voter Turnout 1916-2014.


About tibblebits

Politics and economics student at Arizona State University graduating December 2016
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6 Responses to Compulsory Voting and the Paradox of Voting

  1. vassallucci says:

    Your article is very interesting. I agree with you on a lot of points. However, I don’t think establish a national holiday for the voting day will permit to increase the voter turnout. I think the decrease of the voter turnout in the United States (no matter what the election is) is the reflection of a more important process, much deeper. In my opinion, all of this could be explained by the fact that people don’t believe in politics anymore. Citizens seem desperate. Policies they wish are not applied, promises pronounced by elected representatives are not kept and citizens are facing political scandals more and more important each week. In my view, this whole process leads today citizens to withdraw from politics, to misinform themselves and finally to minimize the importance of their vote and to adopt a utilitarian behavior (“the costs of voting will usually exceed the benefits of voting, and my vote won’t change much”).

    So I think the State’s job is before everything to improve qualitatively and quantitatively the political information, to re-inform citizens of the real news, of the real society problems and to lead them to wonder and to take part in the different political, social and economic debates in the society. However, all of this process takes time. It is a process who cannot be set up and effective from one day to the next. Maybe a new measure such as the compulsory voting (it is the case in Belgium and lots of other countries), could appear as a temporary solution in order to permit to move back up little by little the voter turnout of the American citizens…

  2. mnjacks1 says:

    Great post! It was really interesting to read your take on this issue, however, I have to agree with the post above. I don’t believe there would be a significant increase in voter turnout if it was established as a national holiday. Of course, there would be more people if they didn’t have to go to work, but I don’t believe it would create a reason for people to vote. It seems like people are less involved in politics nowadays. This is extremely apparent in the upcoming election. If people don’t believe in a candidate, many people will not go out and vote for them. I don’t know if there is anyway to change that.

  3. reneucros says:

    You pose an excellent argument for compulsory voting. I absolutely agree that if only fifty percent of the population is voting then the other fifty percent of the population is being underrepresented, or at the very least we don’t know if they are being underrepresented because we don’t know what their voting would be like regarding policies and candidates. However, making voting a national holiday would solve nothing. People would turn it into partying at the lake or going to Vegas like they do with Labor day and Veteran’s day. The issue with making it a holiday is that it doesn’t solve for needing the childcare to go vote. If we had one holiday to vote, and people actually went to vote, the polls would be filled and backed up for four to eight hour lines. Not only do people hate standing in line but children are difficult and impatient in these. Therefore unless we do compulsory voting, we will not be able to solve for the issue of underrepresentation and we will perpetuate the ability of candidates like Trump to sneak their ways into the ticket.

  4. kevyngessner1 says:

    Your point about government tailored to white people is very intriguing. I have never thought about it like that for. Similarly to what we discussed in class, the right to vote becomes less meaningful when we already have it. However, for example when black people received the right to vote, they took that very seriously. Many years later, voting is as common to us breathing or seeing. People have also become discouraged with the whole thought of the “electoral college” and whether “our vote really does matter”.

    In regards to actually going out and voting, I think the mail-in ballot has helped significantly. It’s much easier to sit at home and check the box than it is to go out to the polls and stand in the lines.

    You bring up many good points in this post. I would have to disagree with the posts above.

  5. pinkfreud96 says:

    With regards to the comments above focusing on the “national holiday ” idea, they’ve got some numbers on their side. Only 28% of non-voters considered themselves “too busy” to vote the last election day. So that concept would probably only find limited usefulness in the United States. Many others aren’t motivated by the candidates or interested in the election in general, something that could be somewhat more significant in this year’s presidential election compared to the past.

    That being said, I absolutely agree with you and love the idea of mandatory voting! It would unquestionably bring many more people into the political process, and ideally make the system more “democratic” and receptive as a result. These are certainly “moral imperatives” as you put them and literally every other issue would be impacted through this single change! I think the best way to go about implementing the system would be to levy a small annual fine ($10?) on those who choose to opt out of voting. Subsequently, some of the barriers to voting (ID laws, and such) would have to be peeled back in the process of this transformation to make it easier for people to comply with the voting directive. Also, and most importantly, the option for “none of the above” or allowance for a vote of No Confidence would have to be implemented if we began a program of mandatory voting. I don’t think it’s smart (or moral) to corral independent, free-thinking individuals into voting for a set of candidates thrust upon them with no input or preference of their own. I don’t see a problem with forcing people to vote, but they must have the proper options available to them in order to vote how they would like to. If they would be staying home otherwise and are simply coming to avoid the fine, then that’s fine, and they should tell us that with a vote of No Confidence. We need to hear everybody’s voices in our political process, even and especially if they’re voices of disadvantage, discontent, or dissatisfaction with our system. Mandatory voting would be one of the more effective ways to receive that wider input and participation from as many citizens as possible. Wonderful post!


  6. I like the article, but, once again, I take issue with the concept of a national voting day. There is absentee voting, mail in voting, public poll voting…if you want to vote, the opportunity presents itself. Furthermore, I don’t know if it is a cost-benefit relationship so much as it is laziness-motivation. There’s nothing too extreme lately that has forced the average american to vote with something at stake. Once something dire, something consequential comes around, I predict that voting will go up significantly. The only catch 22 is, once something so drastic is at stake, it’s usually too late to vote. Maybe a class on the importance of efficacy in voting in k-12. But, once again, that begs the question, does voting really matter anyways? Do our votes really make a difference? I don’t know. Maybe someone else does. Food for thought.

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