Polarized America and Non-Compulsory Voting

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Category: Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public
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As a newcomer to the U.S., arriving in the months leading up to a Presidential election, I am struck by the apparent polarization of the American media into red and blue extremes. The most recent conspicuous example was the respective coverage by Fox News and MSNBC of the leaked Mitt Romney tapes (or, one might say, lack of coverage with regard to the former). As one U.S. political correspondent for Australia noted recently, “It is almost as though there are two elections going on in the U.S., each entirely independent of the other. Each side has its own set of facts, and each side is becoming increasingly baffled and frustrated that its opponent will not accept it.”

A notable contrast between U.S. and Australian federal elections is that in Australia, voting in elections is compulsory, and has been since 1924, when a bill to that effect was passed without dissent by both Houses of Parliament. In the first federal election following the establishment of compulsory voting (which is enforced by a system of fines), voting turnout rose to 91.4%, up from 59.38% in the previous, non-compulsory, election. 

A compulsory voting system is controversial for a number of reasons, not which of least is the philosophical objection that participating in elections is a civic right, not a duty, and the transformation of that right into a duty constitutes infringement of a basic freedom of the citizen. More particularly, some legal scholars would argue that compulsory voting constitutes a compelled speech act, which as such violates freedom of speech (which necessarily includes freedom not to speak).

On the other hand, there is no disputing that compulsory voting ensures a large voter turnout, with implications for political legitimacy (depending on how it is defined). Beyond that, it is interesting to speculate on whether forcing the center vote to “pick a side” could cause the presently polarized parties to seek more centrally appealing and less partisan rhetoric, policies, and politics. I am not suggesting that a move to compulsory voting is desirable, or will ever be politically feasible in the U.S. (Australia is the only first-world, Western democratic nation to enforce such a system), but I note that coming from a country in which the two major political parties (Australian Labor Party and the Liberal/National Coalition) must compete for the center to win the right to govern, the contrast with the U.S. in terms of partisanship and polarization in our election seasons is stark and notable.

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7 Responses to “Polarized America and Non-Compulsory Voting”

  1. Interesting thoughts. I believe the right to vote also includes the right to not vote. I think we would have a much higher turnout if (1) we did not have so many elections, and (2) election day was either a holiday or on a Saturday. As it is now, we vote on a Tuesday. That means most people have to vote either before work or after work. If, for example, the polls are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., that leaves a very narrow window of time for people who work to vote.

  2. Irene Ten Cate Says:

    Very interesting indeed! The compelled speech issue might be overcome by allowing voters to turn in empty ballots, or by providing an option for abstaining on the ballot. Then again, this third option could still be characterized as a speech act. In fact, I recall that in the Netherlands, which does not have a compulsory voting system, some people would submit empty ballots precisely to make a statement (something along the lines of “nobody on this list is worth voting for”).

  3. Nkozi Knight Says:

    A compulsory voting system making it a civic duty to cast a vote would never work in the United States due to the 1st Amendment; however, Anna Kloeden brought up some interesting points for discussion. The idea of candidates having to persuade every American as opposed to their own party would change a lot of the rhetoric we see in the media and from the candidates directly. A more centrist approach would have to be taken by both parties forcing both candidates to be more honest as to who they really are. Barack Obama is not as liberal as his party has forced him to appear and Mitt Romney is not the right wing Republican he portrays in his commercials and to the media. They probably have more in common than they both even realize. It is time to rid ourselves of both the Democratic and Republican parties allowing Americans to choose the person rather than the party.

  4. Matthew Fettig Says:

    I believe the polarization in the US has much more to do with our media than our politicians. Until the media stop treating elections, and virtually all other political issues, as sporting events by debasing every issue to politically-skewed polling numbers suggesting a “leader”, and news media sounds bites skewed by their corporate owner’s political affiliations, we’ll continue to drive wedges between the electorate.

    The current presidential election is considered to be one of the best modern examples of drastically divergent views on the role of government. However, in the first debate we saw that both contestants have somewhat similar desires for the country, yet they differ dramatically on the path to those goals. Properly and fully covering those differences is where the media fails us in its responsibility.

  5. Mary Magnuson Says:

    Anna, thank you for this article; the information you’ve provided with regard to compulsory voting is most valuable to those who follow elections closely.

    In contrast to Australia’s compulsory voting, the United States is rampant with particular legislators supporting Voter ID Laws, some of which make it far more difficult for average citizens to vote, including the elderly, low-income and many minorities.

    However, I’m most interested how the votes are counted in Australia. Are they hand-counted, for example, with hard-stock paper-ballots, or are electronic voting machines used? If, in fact, machines are in place, as they are throughout the United States, what type of machines are they – DRE (touch screen) or Optical Scanners? Finally – if you know – what companies provide the voting equipment to your home country?

    Again, many thanks for your article and enjoy the many good things that the USA has to offer!

  6. Anna Kloeden Says:

    Thank you all for your comments. Mary, to respond to your questions – Australian elections are conducted with hard-stock paper-ballots, not electronic voting machines. The votes are then counted by hand. An in-depth overview of the methods used is given in this blog post: http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2011/03/revealed-secrets-of-how-they-count-av-in-australia.html

    Interestingly, the secret ballot method, consisting of printed ballot papers, distributed to each voter and counted by hand, was pioneered in Australia in 1895, and is widely known, for that reason, as the “Australian method”. Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to follow suit, so in the U.S. the method is commonly referred to as either the “Australian method” or the “Massachusetts method”.

  7. I agree with Matthew Fettig’s profound commentary. Presidential elections are treated like sports events. Ads are akin to those for soap or TGI Fridays. Add in polls and all we get is a daily “gotcha” moment rather than any real discussion of the issues.

    I have always believed what the media does not report is far more important than what it does. The media always frames the issues in a way such that the elites who are ruining this country are never discussed. The largest bank fraud in American history is not even a campaign issue. Courts and people have been and continue to be defrauded in the mortgage foreclosure scandal and this massive fraud on ours courts is barely being discussed.

    Romney wants to have less bank/Wall Street regulation, thus leading to more fraud and taxpayer bailouts. Obama wants us all to just forget about it. Since 9/11 the “rule of law” has taken a severe beating and these candidates could care less.

    Our elections are a joke. I participate, but each year I wonder more why I bother.

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