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Obama talks up 'transformative' idea: mandatory voting

Is mandatory voting in the U.S. an idea whose time has come?
President Barack Obama votes next to Aia Cooper at the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Service Center in Chicago, Ill. on Oct. 20, 2014.
President Barack Obama votes next to Aia Cooper at the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Service Center in Chicago, Ill. on Oct. 20, 2014.
In dozens of states, the recent push to curtail voting rights and block Americans' access to the polls has been deeply discouraging. But there are still some leading officials pushing back in the other direction.
That includes Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), who talked to Rachel last night about automatic voter registration, and it also includes President Obama, a longtime voting-rights champion who floated a provocative idea yesterday.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday suggested that if American voters want to "counteract" the role of money in politics, it may be worth making voting mandatory. "It would be transformative if everybody voted," Obama said during a town hall event in Cleveland, Ohio. "That would counteract (campaign) money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country."

The president noted a detail that's true, but not widely known: the voting public often does not reflect the American public at large. Those who exercise the franchise tend to be older, wealthier, and whiter than the broader national population. This is, of course, compounded by voter-suppression tactics, embraced by many Republican policymakers at the state level, which disproportionately affect young people, lower-income adults, and racial and ethnic minorities.
"There's a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls," Obama told his audience yesterday.
Note, the president's comments weren't an explicit endorsement of a radical change to voting rights, but it wasn't an offhand remark, either. Indeed, Obama seems to have given this some thought, reminding the Ohioans in attendance that Australia is one of many modern democracies to have embraced compulsory voting.
The likelihood of a dramatic change to American voting laws along these lines is remote, at least for now, but the president's unexpected comments nevertheless raise a question worthy of debate: is mandatory voting an idea with merit?
Dylan Matthews took a look at the available evidence and noted that compulsory voting "works," at least insofar as it dramatically increases voter turnout -- people participate in order to avoid fines or the loss of government benefits -- and helps ensure that the voting population more accurately reflects the national population.

[M]andatory voting wouldn't necessarily benefit one party or another. But it would, by definition, mean that more Americans' views are represented in government, and in particular that minorities and economically vulnerable people would have more of a voice. And both parties should be competing for their vote, rather than being able to ignore their needs. It may be, in the end, that Republicans win that competition — but first it has to be a competition. The best objection to compulsory voting is that it impinges on peoples' freedom to not vote. But we make citizens perform actions for the collective benefit of society all the time, including everything from objections to mandatory jury duty to taxes to the individual mandate for health insurance. In each of those cases, there's a collective action problem. We want individuals to be on juries or pay taxes or buy health insurance even though doing so would be, from their point of view, irrational. Voting is the same way. Any given voter has very little chance of influencing the election,  but if nobody voted the result would be disastrous. So we need people to make choices that might not benefit them personally for the system to work. Traditionally, that's been an argument for mandates. It might be worth considering adding one for voting as well.

Let the debate begin.