(PBS' audio logo) (dramatic music) (panting) (running feet) (needle ripping across a record) - Yup, that's me.
You're probably wondering how I ended up in this situation.
Well, I live in one of the 22 countries where voting is mandatory, and I forgot to cast my ballot.
(upbeat music) Okay, okay, I'm being a little dramatic.
There's no democracy police after me but in all seriousness, In Belgium, Australia, Brazil, and 19 other democracies, when you don't vote, you could suffer the consequences.
Typically, a fine at first.
In some places if you keep skipping out, you could lose your right to vote.
Sound a little extreme?
But in countries that do enforce the rule, it gets people out to the voting booths.
We wanted to ask the question.
If we started America from scratch today, would we make it illegal to not vote?
- [Narrator] Quartz points to a ground-breaking comparative study which shows that countries that strongly enforce compulsory voting have populations that are more politically informed.
- Let's start with the state of voting today.
In the 2016 U.S. presidential election the voter turnout, meaning the percentage of people who are eligible to vote who cast a ballot, was 55.7%, give or take some spoiled ballots.
What about the younger generations?
A little less than half of Millennials cast a vote in the most recent presidential election.
Among some other groups, such as people of color, and the poor, the percentages are also even lower, and in non-presidential election years, more than half of those eligible to vote do not.
Why is voter turnout so low in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world?
- Well, there a ton of explanations and if there were one easy answer, we would have figured this problem out by now.
Sometimes it's barriers.
People who can't get a ride to the polls, or people who don't either understand, or take advantage of what it means to register to vote and actually go and vote so actual logistical and physical barriers.
But then, there's a different kind of barrier.
And that's the barrier of the mind.
- People who think their vote doesn't count.
Think that their vote doesn't matter.
And then there's the people who think, sure it might count, sure it might matter, but they are disillusioned or even disgusted with politics, with the candidates, with what's being said, what's not being said, and they choose, very conscientiously choose, to sit it out.
Almost like an act of protest.
And so it comes in a variety of themes and flavors, but we do have an issue in this country of not voting in the numbers that we should.
- So how do we stack up with the rest of the world?
Well, let's ask my side-kick and statistic expert, Scratchy, are you there?
Well, Toussaint, compared to the other democracies, it's not too impressive.
Within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we placed 26th out of 36 other similarly democratic and developed countries.
In the other countries in the OECD, don't all have mandatory voting laws.
Only six of them do.
- Thanks for that, Scratchy.
So, despite all the commotion on election years in the U.S., not even 60% of the people that can vote, do vote.
- Why are we concerned if there's low voter turnout?
I think the concern is if some people are systematically more likely to vote than others.
If there is something that suggests that the people who are voting have a different set of preferences than the people who aren't.
That's the point at which we should get concerned about low voter turnout.
- [Toussaint] In it's last federal election, Belgium, the teacher's pet in this topic, had about an 87% turnout of its registered voters.
That's pretty impressive.
The highest rate the U.S. has experienced was in 1876, when nearly 82% of eligible folks cast a vote in the presidential contest between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden.
Presidential election voting rates haven't tipped over 60% since 1968.
I don't even want to even tell you how lousy our local election turnouts are.
In 10 of the United States' 30 largest cities, turnout for mayoral elections is lower than 15%.
And the average age of a voter is 57.
Scratchy the Eagle is crying.
(eagle crying) - Could a mandatory voting law even work for us?
- Election law is done at the state level, but administered at the very local level.
And so if this reform were to come about, it would need to be from the bottom up, as opposed to the top down.
And I think if you look across the country, there is huge variation in every facet of election law.
And I think it would be very hard to get widespread, mandatory voting.
So even in countries with mandatory voting laws, you don't have 100% of the population who is choosing to participate to vote.
So that means that even when the costs are lowered, or there are costs imposed on not voting, there are people who still choose to make that choice.
There's really interesting work in political science that actually shows that some people are just more biologically predisposed to participate and that it's not, no matter what you do to ease the pathway, there are always going to be people who make the decision not to.
- [Toussaint] With the mandatory voting issue, there is a big elephant in the room.
And that elephant is called, if a democracy is forced, is it a democracy at all?
- I would stop short of making them vote.
And the reason I say that is I think the right to vote, which I encourage everyone to exercise all the time, is also the right not to vote.
- If everyone is required to vote, but we don't deal with the underlying problems about why people aren't voting in the first place, you could imagine a scenario where right now people are just either disenfranchised, or are feeling disconnected from the system and not participating.
But requiring them to vote, and not dealing with those barriers and those hurdles could mean that then on top of that, they're also having to pay a penalty because they didn't vote.
- Actually, there is a problem in this country with voter participation.
We do vote at a much lower rate than a lot of other democracies.
But there are so many other things we could do to make voting easier.
- We shouldn't be making it harder to vote, we should be making it easier to vote.
- So, what are some of the ways we can improve the voter turnout?
- So we have the most complicated and difficult system of voting and that results in us having very low voter turnout.
We should have online voter registration, in all 50 states, we should consider having polling centers and not polling places, meaning you can vote at any polling center in your state, it doesn't need to be a designated one.
We should let every person register to vote on election day, at the polls, if they have ID.
The reason that voter registration deadlines are about 30 days before the election is that they pre-date computers so that they're left over from when every single voter registration form needed to be processed by hand.
And we should absolutely vote on a weekend and not a weekday because people are at work.
When we chose Tuesday as a day for elections in 1845, we chose it because it was the day before farmers came to market, so it was a convenient time for the majority of Americans to vote.
And now, 173 years later, it is an inconvenient time for the majority of Americans to vote.
- Throughout your experience and your tenure in your career you've seen a lot and experience a lot.
Do you think we take voting for granted?
I can't put it any better than the words I saw a few years ago on a T-shirt.
And the T-shirt said, "Failure to vote "is not an act of rebellion, "it's an act of surrender.
I get that people, regardless of age, have this impulse from time to time.
Even I have it, and I'm an elected official, to say, you know what?
I'm throwing my hands up, wake me when it's over, this is too intense.
But in the end, don't give in to that impulse, don't surrender.
Because that's what it is.
It's a surrender, it's not a protest, it's not striking a blow for some cause to sit at home and let people who have totally opposite views and values from you have their way in the end while you're at home.
I totally agree with that.
Particularly for younger people.
Which is to say, look, when you turn 18 in this country, you get a lot of things.
Hopefully, a slice of birthday cake, a couple of presents, a pat on the rack, congratulations... You know what else you get?
Formal, political, power.
- It may not always feel like it's being heard, but we all have the opportunity to have a voice in our government.
Right now, whether you use that voice, is your choice.
But what do you think?
Should we make voting mandatory?
- Hey everybody!
Thanks for watching the episode on Mandatory voting.
I'm the host.
And, if you want to get the nitty-gritty on that episode, and the rest of our episodes, go to any streaming site for podcasts.
That's anywhere, and type in "America from Scratch".
- [Voiceover] This program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.