Learn Liberty

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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