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Should You Be Forced to Vote?

In an effort to increase voter turnout, some countries have laws requiring citizens to vote or face a penalty. Should the United States adopt such a practice? Professor Jason Brennan offers several reasons for not making voting mandatory.

  • Political scientists find that most citizens are badly informed.
  • Citizens appear to make systematic mistakes about the most basic issues in economics, political science, and sociology. People who would fail econ 101 should not be required to make decisions about economic policy.
  • People who tend to abstain from voting are more ignorant than people who vote. Forcing them to vote would lead to a more ignorant pool of voters, which leads to political candidates who reflect voters’ misperceptions. The end result is bad public policy.

One objection to this argument is that the disadvantaged, the poor, the unemployed, and the uneducated are less likely to vote than other groups. Some argue that people should be forced to vote so the disadvantaged won’t be taken advantage of. Professor Brennan says this objection relies upon the false assumption that people vote for their own interests. In contrast, political scientists have found over and again that people tend to vote for what they believe to be the national interest. We don’t need to worry about protecting nonvoters from selfish voters. Instead, we should worry about whether voters will invest the time to learn which policies really serve the public good.

According to Brennan, bad decisions in the voting booth contribute to bad government; needless wars; homophobic, sexist, and racist legislation; lost prosperity; and more. While all citizens should have an equal right to vote, someone who wants to abstain from voting because he doesn’t feel he knows the right answers—or for any other reason—should be allowed to do so. Brennan concludes that mandatory voting guarantees high turnout but not better government.

A Case Against Mandatory Voting  [article]: The American Spectator piece against mandatory voting

Voting Should be Mandatory  [article]: Bloomberg piece favoring compulsory voting

Most Voters Aren't Stupid  [article]: The American Prospect piece examining both sides of the voter ignorance debate

Very Stupid Voters  (video): John Stossel exposes how little some voters know about politics

Sociotropes, Systematic Bias, and Political Failure: Reflections on the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy  [journal article]: Bryan Caplan on voting behavior based on ideas rather than self interest


Many people believe low voter turnout is a problem. As a solution, some advocate mandatory voting. There are mandatory voting laws in other countries, like Australia, which require citizens to vote or face a fine or punishment.

Are these laws a good idea? I would say no.

Here’s one reason why. For over 50 years, political scientists have continually found that most citizens are badly informed. For instance, most cannot identify incumbents. If things are going well, they don’t know whom to thank. If things are going badly, they don’t know whom to blame.

Yet ignorance isn’t even the main problem. Citizens appear to make systematic mistakes about the most basic issues in economics, political science, and sociology. While you can force someone to vote, you can’t force them to know a lot about an issue.

The typical citizen would fail Econ 101. Do we really want to force him or her to make a choice about economic policy?

The typical citizen systematically overestimates the benefits of war and underestimates the human and material costs. Do we really want to force him or her to choose between the hawkish and dovish candidates?

When political scientists and economists study political knowledge, they find that the citizens who abstain from voting are typically even more ignorant or misinformed than the citizens who do vote. If we forced everyone to vote, the net result is that we get a more misinformed pool of voters. We would then get political candidates who reflect voters’ misperceptions. We then get bad public policy. That’s not likely to be in the electorate’s advantage or to the advantage of the most vulnerable members of society.

A common objection to my argument is that voter turnout isn’t uniformly low among all groups. The disadvantaged, poor, unemployed, and uneducated are much less likely to vote than the advantaged, rich, employed, and educated. So the argument is that maybe we should force the disadvantaged to vote in order to make sure that the better off don’t take advantage of them or ignore their interests.

But this objection relies upon a false assumption. It assumes people vote primarily for their self-interest. Now, you’re going to find this hard to believe, but when political scientists study voting behavior they find over and over again that people do not vote selfishly. Political scientists themselves have had a hard time accepting this, and that’s why they’ve done so many studies.

Instead, they find that voters tend to vote for what they believe to be the national interest. So we don’t need to worry about protecting nonvoters from selfish voters. People mean well. They don’t want to exploit their neighbors. What we should worry about instead is that people do not invest the time to learn which policies really serve the common good. Forcing people to vote doesn’t fix this problem.

Elections are high stakes. If we make bad decisions at the voting booth, we contribute to bad government; needless wars; homophobic, sexist, and racist legislation; lost prosperity; and more.

All citizens should have an equal right to vote, but if someone wants to abstain from voting because he doesn’t feel he knows the right answers (or for any other reason), he should be allowed to do so. You can force people to cast votes, but you can’t force them to cast smart, well-informed votes, however good their intentions may be.  Mandatory voting guarantees high turnout but not better government.

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  1. fred

    Every single one of us lacks the knowledge necessary to make a "truly informed" decision about the direction society should take, what decisions others should take, and reguarly lack the necessary wisdom to make prudent choices in our own lives. 

  2. libertyiowa

    I watched this video on February 14, 2014. The same day I saw this article on Yahoo: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/millionaire-vc-riche-people-more-192834808.html. According to the article Tom Perkins claimed government should be more like a corporation. In a corporation, the more stock you own, the more votes you get at the annual meeting. Perkins says the more taxes you pay, the more votes in a election you should get. It is interesting because the author of the Yahoo article clearly believes that the wealthy would vote in their best interest and not in the best interest of the country. Then all the disenfranchised poor would rise up against Perkins and his rich friends. According to what we learn in this video, just the opposite might happen. Those with the most votes would be better informed and therefore we might have better government. It is interesting Prof. Brennan state the obvious counter, "all citizens should have an equal right to vote." Clearly there must be a point of diminishing return when the people with all the votes would only vote in their best interest and then you would have tyranny.  

  3. Matt Wavle

    Interesting article, When the author of this article simply says "Obviously, this is stupid idea for the country", are we suppose to just take his word for it, at face value, or just because he says so?  Someone who is a successful producer has a great point about his vote needing to count for more than someone who cost more than he produces.

  4. Matt Wavle

    The median wage, year 2012, or last national vote, was less than $27,000.  That would mean that if we were all forced to vote, the leadership of our country would be chosen by those making less than $27 K/yr.  We’d understand a large business that failed due to that kind of decision making matrix.

  5. Anonymous

    Are you kidding me? The bad government you described IS THE CURRENT SITUATION!
    Your argument is ELITIST. The poor don’t vote because they feel powerless to change things. IE they know that other disenfranchised will not vote, so they give up and don’t vote themselves. But if they know that other poor people are voting then it will empower them to claim a voice for themselves. 

  6. TateFegley

    I would very much be willing to believe that people polled on how they vote would claim they voted for the national interest and not to exploit their neighbor. Everyone who votes for more government spending thinks it’s in the national interest; the fact that they themselves may directly benefit from it is just a fortunate side effect.

  7. Ryan Boyd

    Interesting view from a more Socialist stance, one that I would have to agree with in a way. But the fact is will simply forcing them all to vote necessarily get us a better government? I love the idea of everyone voting and everyone participating in their government, but it seems like you can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink. If we do make voting compulsory, those same underprivileged people may be still taken advantage of.

  8. Ryan Boyd

    It seems to me that there is something to be said about your right not to vote as well. Voting should be an instrument, and one that can be withheld for change as well. Additionally, it is nearly impossible to assume that every citizen will be knowledgeable about all the issues. This is why we specialize, so a doctor can have decades of experience to help the sick and the mechanic knows how to fix machines in record times. Trying to do everything will inevitably create crappy results.

  9. Anonymous

    with all due respect
    I think the professor is a bit short sighted but makes valid points.

    Elections are very
    high stakes and can lead to years of turmoil but by its nature its a
    reflection of the populous.

    Of course people
    are going to vote wrong or regret their vote afterwards,
    voters become informed because they generate an interest. whether
    that be foreign or domestic policy. If you force participation, you
    nudge their interest.

    I cant imagine
    people who are forced to vote will not develop an interest when bad
    policy affects them.

    non-mandatory votes led us into a current
    society where we already have political candidates who reflect voters

    And in my personal opinion a government run only by
    smart people is not a democracy.

    And for people who
    don’t vote because they think the system is broken, Its broken
    because you don’t vote, You don’t provide your opinion so then no one
    knows what you want. Also don’t vote for the lesser of two evils
    because that makes your vote evil. If all candidates fail to meet
    your expectations then I challenge you to run against them. Your
    ideas may be better.

    But this all moot
    because as minabe types so fairly “ Voting is all about having a
    choice and making it mandatory would defeat it’s main purpose”

    Maybe instead we
    could make laws and policy in plain english and stop assuming
    everyone reading it would understand legal terms. Every policy must
    answer a fundamental question “how does this affect me?”

  10. Anonymous

    I live in a country with mandatory attendance at the polls and a fairly high turn on polling out with a low percentage of donkey votes (invalid), however, i do not see our current government as ‘good’ or representative of the low income earners and less educated. Our current Govt represents the interests of big business therefore I agree with the statement that (with mandatory voting) we end up with a Government representing misconceptions of a large portion of voters.  From pre-poll discussion panels and vox popping it would seem the majority of voters pay too much attention to media hype and very little attention to policy.  I also agree they seem to vote for what they have been persuaded to believe is in the ‘national interests’.  Whilst my idealism affects my vote I don’t understand why people would vote against their own personal interests eg. job prospects, pay rates, pension rates etc. things that directly affect their quality of life. 

  11. Anonymous

    as far as i can tell, most voters are not informed about policy at all.  if they have to go to the polls they are "educated" by the media and the media publishes stories with drama and personal interest not informative accounts with useful facts to educate the masses.

  12. Steve Davies

    Interesting voters generally vote their opinion of national interest. I would’ve thought self interest too.

  13. Lukas Koube

    most people vote bc they dont like the other guy….i wonder what would happen if people were allowed a “negative” vote…..then we could see how few people actually support the candidates and how many just hate the other guy….

  14. Anonymous

    Isn’t the point of democracy the choice weather to vote for whoever you wish for or not to vote at all? What is the point of saying that we live in democracy when the freedom to make our own choices is taken away from us? 

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