Compulsory voting could reduce political polarization in the US, study suggests

Students entering the polling station to cast their votes. Credit: Meredith Forrest at Clokey/University at Buffalo

Introducing compulsory voting in the United States and other majoritarian democracies, with meaningful and enforceable penalties for absenteeism, has the potential to reduce political polarization and protect democratic institutions from anti-democratic threats, a Buffalo political philosopher. According to a paper published by the university.

facts and evidence, published In the journal American Political Science Review Incorporates a reformulation of existing theoretical political models to show how a compulsory voting system can bridge the gap between the proposed policies of the two major political parties.

“a reason This is where candidates have to cater to extremists in their parties, who threaten to walk out unless their demands are met. Compulsory voting can push the party platform toward the center by reducing the ability of extremists to make such threats. This will directly reduce polarization,” says Alexandra Oprea, PhD, assistant professor of philosophy in UB’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics program, and first author of the paper.

“We need to be creative and consider options to increase turnout because the damage to democracy from political polarization is severe,” Oprea says.

Voting, often referred to as a citizen’s “duty”, has been largely voluntary since the beginning of Athenian democracy. But that is beginning to change, as many democracies have installed, tested or proposed compulsory voting systems.

27 countries around the world currently have compulsory voting, including Australia, Belgium and Peru. Another 12 countries have experimented with such systems. Canada, Britain and France recently introduced mandatory voting bills that failed to gain support.

In the US, former President Barack Obama endorsed a form of compulsory voting as a short-term solution to increase turnout among young people and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and underrepresented groups. And there is a bill under consideration in Washington that would make voting mandatory in that state.

Compulsory voting refers to policies mandating turnout (voters can refuse to cast a valid ballot once at the polls) for a range of national and by-elections. Some mandatory voting systems are not enforced, while others carry fines of around $20 US for abstention. Empirical studies of mandatory voting show that turnout increases by 7 to 10 percentage points without implementation, anywhere from 14.5 to 18.5 percentage points with implementation.

“The real idea is not that compulsory voting brings turnout to 100%. But adding 10 to 20% turnout to elections — especially In America, where turnout is particularly low—changes the political game entirely. Even 5% to 10% will make a significant difference,” says Oparia.

Oparia’s paper on the absence of extreme polarization in Australia began with co-authors Geoffrey Brennan, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at the Australian National University (who died before the paper was published) and Lucy Martin, Ph.D. It started with conversation. ., associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They develop a theoretical model for voter abstention and discuss how it predicts that compulsory voting will increase turnout.

This paper runs theoretical simulations using three basic levels of turnout (40%, 50% and 60%) that cover the range of turnout seen in US congressional and presidential elections over the past two decades. Assuming a 16.5 percentage point increase in turnout (among empirical estimates), even suggesting a significant 22% reduction in polarization.

Enacting mandatory voting in the U.S., however, is unlikely, according to Oparia, who says such a proposal would face constitutional challenges, and it would be difficult to get every state on board.

But he believes it’s time for local and state governments to experiment with ways to increase turnout.

“We’ve experimented with ranked-choice voting, where voters rank candidates according to preference, and other experiments at the municipal level,” she says. “Our paper shows that compulsory voting would be worth trying, as long as governments can do it legally.

“Doing so will show evidence of what it can do.”

More information:
Alexandra Oprea et al., Moving to the Median: Compulsory Voting and Political Polarization, American Political Science Review (2024). DOI: 10.1017/S0003055423001399

Reference: Compulsory Voting Could Reduce Political Polarization in US, Study Finds (2024, February 16) Accessed February 17, 2024 at https://phys.org/news/2024-02-compulsory-voting-political-polarization. Retrieved from html

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