You needn’t vote, but you must return the ballot

OregonPEN Agenda Priority


In this most terrible week, following the murders of five police officers in Dallas, following two more incidents of homicides by police of African-American men by white police officers – just two more of hundreds this year alone – the temptation is wade into that quagmire and try to make sense of it.

But the rule at OregonPEN is to focus on causes rather than symptoms, and to propose practical solutions that address those causes instead of the symptoms.

And one of the deepest causes of our fractured and fragmented society is the almost entirely unrecognized problem in our democracy caused by our antiquated election rules, from the way we count votes (winner-take-all elections) to the very fact that the self-congratulatory language about democracy in America ignores that we continue to treat voting as a privilege instead of as a fundamental right bordering on a duty.

Oregon, with its all-mail elections, is uniquely positioned to address one particular problem, the widespread failure to participate in voting that is both caused by and contributes to apathy and then alienation from civic mindedness.

In 2017, the Governor of Oregon should propose and the Legislature should pass a law requiring that all Oregonians on the voting rolls must, during each election, participate to the extent of return their ballot by the voting deadline, voted or not.

A compulsory ballot-return law is justified on any number of bases.

First, requiring all eligible voters to get and then return a ballot will force election officials to constantly keep their voting rolls current and correct, which is their highest duty anyway.

Second, it increases the likelihood that people who are eligible but choose today to be non-voters will become voters, which is the first step to becoming engaged in citizenship.
Third, compulsory ballot returns underscore the truth that, in a democracy, voting is truly the minimum level of engagement. As such, we need to make it the minimum, by requiring that minimal action of all persons eligible.

Fourth, it puts participation in democratic self-governance on the same level with taxpaying, which is never left up to the taxpayer. You don’t have to register to pay taxes, and the tax system is set up so that you are not allowed to opt out, even if you wind up owing no taxes. Everyone is compelled, and can be punished for failure to participate in funding government; it is not too much to require that adults are all similarly required to return the ballot that can carry their choices for deciding how that funding is spent.

Again, the law would not require anyone to vote without consent – the requirement is simply ballot return. In addition to increasing voter participation, we would also get the benefit of having constantly updated voting rolls and the ability to have assurance verging on certainty that government did its job in the election process, delivering a ballot to each person eligible in time for the person to vote if desired.

After each election, the local election officials would be charged with validating their election rolls and fixing problems. For all the non-returned ballots, the elections office would have to determine whether the eligible to vote Oregonian moved away, was out of state throughout the entire election period, died, or was otherwise prevented from returning their ballot. The person who seemed to have simply failed to return the ballot would be notified and asked to provide the justification for having failed to return the ballot. The County Clerks would

What’s the Penalty for Failure?

The obvious question is how we would make compulsory ballot return work in a state where people are notoriously balky about mandates from government.
The simplest, most efficient way to enforce compliance would not involve direct penalties; rather, the penalties would be withheld governmental benefits.

The most powerful would be to require that taxpayers and applicants for government services give their voting registration number on their state tax returns. The Oregon Department of Revenue would cross-check that number against state ballot-return database records each year. Taxpayers who failed to return the ballots would be ineligible to claim the full personal deduction or the political contribution deductions on their Oregon taxes. For each missed election, the personal deduction that the person could claim would be reduced by half.

And students would list the voting registration number on admission applications and financial aid requests, and students who fail to return a ballot in the most recent election would be ineligible for in-state tuition at public institutions or for state-controlled financial aid funds.
Compulsory ballot return will not be a panacea or a quick fix to anything. But over the long term, it will improve the culture of our democracy and promote engagement far more than anything we do now.

Compulsory Voting Around the World

Most democratic governments consider participating in national elections a right of citizenship. Some consider that participation at elections is also a citizen’s civic responsibility. In some countries, where voting is considered a duty, voting at elections has been made compulsory and has been regulated in the national constitutions and electoral laws. Some countries go as far as to impose sanctions on non-voters.

Compulsory voting is not a new concept. Some of the first countries that introduced mandatory voting laws were Belgium in 1892, Argentina in 1914 and Australia in 1924.
There are also examples of countries such as Venezuela and the Netherlands which at one time in their history practiced compulsory voting but have since abolished it.

Advocates of compulsory voting argue that decisions made by democratically elected governments are more legitimate when higher proportions of the population participate. They argue further that voting, voluntarily or otherwise, has an educational effect upon the citizens. Political parties can derive financial benefits from compulsory voting, since they do not have to spend resources convincing the electorate that it should in general turn out to vote. Lastly, if democracy is government by the people, presumably this includes all people, then it is every citizen’s responsibility to elect their representatives.

The leading argument against compulsory voting is that it is not consistent with the freedom associated with democracy. Voting is not an intrinsic obligation and the enforcement of the law would be an infringement of the citizens’ freedom associated with democratic elections. It may discourage the political education of the electorate because people forced to participate will react against the perceived source of oppression. Is a government really more legitimate if the high voter turnout is against the will of the voters? Many countries with limited financial capacity may not be able to justify the expenditures of maintaining and enforcing compulsory voting laws. It has been proved that forcing the population to vote results in an increased number of invalid and blank votes compared to countries that have no compulsory voting laws.

Another consequence of mandatory voting is the possible high number of “random votes”. Voters who are voting against their free will may check off a candidate at random, particularly the top candidate on the ballot. The voter does not care whom they vote for as long as the government is satisfied that they fulfilled their civic duty. What effect does this immeasurable category of random votes have on the legitimacy of the democratically elected government? [This concern is unlikely to arise in Oregon or anywhere else in the United States, where the requirement would only be that the ballot must be returned, with no requirement that it be voted.]

A figure depicting the exact number of countries that practice compulsory voting is quite arbitrary. The simple presence or absence of mandatory voting laws in a constitution is far too simplistic. It is more constructive to analyze compulsory voting as a spectrum ranging from a symbolic, but basically impotent, law to a government which systematic follow-up of each non-voting citizen and implement sanctions against them.

This spectrum implies that some countries formally have compulsory voting laws but do not, and have no intention to, enforce them. There are a variety of possible reasons for this.

Not all laws are created to be enforced. Some laws are created to merely state the government’s position regarding what the citizen’s responsibility should be. Mandatory voting laws that do not include sanctions may fall into this category.

Although a government may not enforce mandatory voting laws or even have formal sanctions in law for failing to vote, the law may have some effect upon the citizens. For example, in Austria voting is compulsory in only two regions, with sanctions being weakly enforced. However, these regions tend to have a higher turnout average than the national average.

Other possible reasons for not enforcing the laws could be complexity and resources required for enforcement. Countries with limited budgets may not place the enforcement of mandatory voting laws as a high priority still they hope that the presence of the law will encourage the citizens to participate.

Can a country be considered to practice compulsory voting if the mandatory voting laws are ignored and irrelevant to the voting habits of the electorate? Is a country practicing compulsory voting if there are no penalties for not voting? What if there are penalties for failing to vote but they are never or are scarcely enforced? Or if the penalty is negligible?

Many countries offer loopholes, intentionally and otherwise, which allow non-voters to go unpunished. For example, in many countries it is required to vote only if you are a registered voter, but it is not compulsory to register. People might then have incentives not to register. In many cases, like Australia, an acceptable excuse for absence on Election Day will avoid sanctions.

The diverse forms compulsory voting has taken in different countries refocuses the perception of it away from an either present or absent practice of countries to a study of the degree and manner in which the government forces its citizens to participate.
From the website of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).