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Is the US Ready for Universal Voting?

By Wendy Underhill | June 29, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting
Compulsory voting
for the U.S.?

What did Thomas Jefferson and George Carlin have in common with E.J. Dionne and Miles Rapoport?

They wanted everyone to vote.

“We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate,” Jefferson said. Carlin shared a similar view 150 years later: “If you don’t vote, you lose the right to complain.”

As for Dionne and Rapoport, they’ve written a book about the importance of voting: “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting,” which argues for changing voting from a civic right to a civic duty.

Dionne is best known as a political columnist for The Washington Post with some three dozen books to his name. Rapoport, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and (more important for NCSL’s purposes) a former Connecticut legislator, has been professionally pondering democracy and how to protect and improve it for 40 years.

“Universal voting” goes beyond universal suffrage, which ensures that all adults have the right to vote, maybe with a few exceptions. Universal voting, on the other hand, requires voting. The authors assure us that universal voting will make turnout go up dramatically and that, with more voters, election outcomes will represent our citizens better.

Want better turnout? Change voting from a civic right to a civic duty.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, known as International IDEA, calls this principle compulsory voting and reports that 13% of the world’s nations have it, including Argentina and several other South American countries; Austria and several other European countries; Singapore; and, most significantly, Australia.

Worried about having to choose between candidates you don’t know or like? No worries. Simply choose “none of the above” or leave the ballot blank. Your vote is a secret, after all.

Worried about enforcing such a requirement? Australia levies a fine of AU$20 (about $15), which can be avoided by sending in an excuse.

For the authors, universal voting is all about nudging Americans to do the right thing. “It’s a North Star reform,” Rapoport says, and they are prepared for a long road ahead—including journeys through all 50 state capitols. NCSL is aware of two bills to create universal voting: Connecticut SB 180, from 2021, which failed, and Massachusetts HB 788, also from 2021, which is still in committee.

And yet the concept is not entirely new in our country. State constitutions enacted in Massachusetts in 1918 and North Dakota in 1898 allow for it—but statutes were never enacted to bring it to fruition.

If you don’t want to read the book (which would be a shame since it’s a slim 154 pages), try the short report, Lift Every Voice: The Urgency of Universal Civic Duty Voting.

Wendy Underhill directs NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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