“I love the poorly educated!” exclaimed a relentless Donald Trump after winning the Nevada caucus.
As awkward and insensitive as this comment may have been, it was not unfounded. Trump’s constituency is largely made up of working-class citizens with limited education. In fact, The New York Times states, “his backing from voters with a high school degree or less is twice as high as it is from those with college degrees.” While it may seem like working-class citizens would be shooting themselves in the foot by voting for a businessman, it’s important to keep in mind that Trump diverges from most Republican candidates in his opposition to cuts in Social Security and Medicare. He holds considerable appeal to the working class, and that’s why voting needs to remain voluntary.
It’s not that voting needs to remain voluntary for the sake of undermining Trump’s chances. Rather, it’s that Trump’s appeal to the working class exposes bias in compulsory voting logic. Many of these advocates oppose voluntary voting on the basis that it provides an unfair advantage to Republican candidates, seeing as non-voters often belong to certain groups (young people, working-class people, minorities, etc.) that tend to support Democratic candidates. When the pattern changes (as it has in Trump’s case), Republicans who have previously claimed to oppose compulsory voting should theoretically maintain their stance, even though it no longer works in their political favor.
This sort of bias is clearly problematic. Opinions on voluntary voting shouldn’t change according to which party voluntary voting benefits. Rather, the voluntary voting debate should be given full regard as an issue in and of itself, distinct from partisan politics.
Voting is a right. It’s the right to take a position, just as much as it’s the right to not take a position. While it is true that in many cases people don’t vote due to lack of access or resources, it is also true that in many cases people don’t vote simply because they don’t have a strong opinion one way or another. The right to free speech means the right to express an honest opinion, and sometimes an honest opinion is the very absence of an opinion. In other words, forcing people to express themselves in ways contrary to how they feel would be a violation of free speech.
Furthermore, democracy is government of the people, by the people, and for the people. If one person who doesn’t care about a given issue gets as much of a say in that issue as another person who cares deeply about that issue, what does that say about how seriously we take the notion of democracy?
This question is certainly being raised in Australia, where voting is compulsory. “Turning the vote out [in Australia] might not be a problem, but wooing disengaged citizens now requires banal sloganeering and crass misleading negative advertising,” explains one Australian citizen. “To me, this can diminish the democratic experience for those who take the time to think through the issues.” In other words, a government elected through compulsory voting would not accurately represent the needs and desires of its people.
All of that being said, lack of access and resources is a serious hindrance to turnout. Many people miss out on voting because they cannot afford to take time off from work (42 percent of Americans didn’t take even one vacation day last year), especially considering the long lines and waiting periods involved in the process. Those with limited resources are further restricted by voter ID laws, seeing as it takes time and money to obtain a photo ID.
Compulsory voting would likely require election day to be a national holiday, which would significantly reduce the hindrances on voting. However, compulsory voting would come with a host of other problems, many of which have already been mentioned. Why not keep voting voluntary and make Election Day a national holiday? Election Day is a national holiday (or takes place on the weekend) in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and New Zealand, all countries with a better turnout rate than the United States. Spreading this practice to the United States could improve turnout and promote equality of opportunity across income groups, while still preserving free speech and democracy.
Wade is a member of the class of 2017.