President Barack Obama recently mooted the idea of making voting mandatory, as a means of increasing turnout. It’s true that U.S. citizens are less likely to go to the polls than those of many (not all) other democracies. Nevertheless, with all due respect to the president, I don’t much like his idea. And if getting more people to the polls is the goal, I have a better suggestion.
Let me spell out my biases. I’m a happy nonvoter. More to the point, I find that I am more at peace when I don’t bother following electoral politics than when I do. Staying away from the polls helps me to focus on my work, to take a relaxed attitude toward life, even to be a better husband and father than I otherwise might. So naturally I’m distressed at the thought that my government would even consider using coercion to disturb my peace of mind.
This isn’t apathy. And it’s not that I’m uninformed. But given that my vote can’t possibly make any difference to the outcome, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a reason to go to the polls. Our political parties and their supporters, with their adolescent sloganeering and emotional appeals, make the prospect of participation in their nonsense entirely unenticing.
Still, the debate over whether voting should be compulsory has a great deal of academic currency. Supporters often argue that those who are staying away from the polls tend to be political outsiders whose views policy rarely reflects. Others contend that low-information voters, if required to go to the polls, might be transformed into high-information voters. President Obama put the case that mandatory voting could reduce the influence of money in politics.
These seemingly strong arguments have equally strong rejoinders. For example, as the law professor Ilya Somin has pointed out, forcing low-information voters to the polls might actually heighten the influence of money in politics – at least if, as I suspect, low-information voters tend to watch a lot of television.
As to the claim that the outsiders who stay away from the polls would make a crucial policy difference, the philosopher Jason Brennan offers a sharp riposte: “The argument seems to presume that voter (sic) vote for their self-interest. But we have overwhelming empirical evidence, drawn from hundreds of studies, that they don’t vote their self-interest. Instead, they vote altruistically, for what they perceive to be in the national interest.”
You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m with the dissenters. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I actually do believe that my fundamental liberty includes a freedom not to be coerced except for the most important of reasons. Otherwise, I’d be grateful to be left alone, to live according to my own values and preferences. If I’d rather spend Election Day reading a good book, I think my government should let me.
Besides, if increasing turnout is really so important, why signal that fact by punishing people who don’t go to the polls? Maybe we’d do better to reward them instead. If voting is such an unadorned good, let’s pay people to show up. Surely paying people to do a good thing isn’t a bad thing.
Social scientists have understood for some time that cash payments alter people’s incentives, sometimes drastically. For example, paying people money to quit smoking greatly enhances the chances of success. Paying students to keep a certain grade-point average seems to make a difference. Paying teenage girls not to get pregnant greatly decreases the chance that they'll get pregnant.
These are all behavioral changes we want to encourage. Why not treat voting the same way? It’s likely to work. An experiment conducted by Fordham political scientist Costas Panagopoulos found that paying cash rewards of $25 raised turnout in a municipal election from 14.9 percent to 19.2 percent – no small increase.
Are you appalled at the notion of paying people to vote? Ask yourself why. After all, the program would increase turnout. And if, as Brennan suggests elsewhere, the true objection to paid voting is that we think “voters should always be volunteers,” the same objection should apply to forcing people to vote. Like those who are paid, those who are coerced also aren’t volunteers.
I’ve long been mystified by our bipartisan national determination to achieve what we think is best by punishing people who won’t go along. Rewards for good behavior are better than punishments for bad. They force us to discover how much we really value what we claim to want. If increasing turnout is really as important as supporters say, let’s give nonvoters a real incentive to go the polls: cash.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.