Ten Miles Square


May 02, 2012 10:55 AM Making Voting Compulsory (for Young People)

By John Sides

Guy Lodge and Sarah Birch:

Increasing electoral turnout is not just a nice idea, it is something we must actively strive for if elections are to serve the needs of all citizens….So how can we increase rates of electoral participation, particularly among ‘hard-to-reach’ groups such as the young and the poor?
…by far the most effective – albeit controversial – way of boosting participation is to make voting compulsory….Calls for compulsory voting are, however, commonly met with the objection that it is a citizen’s right to choose not to vote…
To allay such fears we propose a more realistic approach which is to make electoral participation compulsory for first-time voters only. Voters would be compelled only to turn out – and would be provided with a ‘none of the above’ option. The logic behind this proposal is that people who vote in the first election for which they are eligible are considerably more likely to vote throughout their lives. Introducing an obligation for new electors to turn out once would thus go a significant way toward breaking the habit of non-voting that often gets passed from generation to generation, and could have a substantial and lasting impact on turnout.

I am going to side-step the normative question of whether turnout should be higher or lower.  For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that this is a worthy goal and focus my initial thoughts on the likely empirical effect of this plan, with the proviso that this is developed for the UK and I am no expert in British politics.

First, turnout is indeed habit-forming, according to other research by Donald Green, Alan Gerber, and Ronald Shachar (see here and here for summaries).  To quote from the second study, which involved a randomized experiment in New Haven, CT, during the 1998 election:

…voting in 1998 raised the probability of voting in 1999 by 46.7 percentage points.  Other things being equal, registered voters who did not vote in 1998 had a 16.6% chance of voting in 1999, as compared to 63.3% among those who voted in 1998.  By any standard this is a very large effect.

It is.  In the short run, some of that effect will probably decay.  And we don’t really know whether the effect would be as large for young people as for older people.  But still, after years and years of compulsory turnout for young people, the effect is likely to accumulate, relative to a counterfactual world with no such requirement.  I think there is a good chance that the proposal could succeed.

Second, this surge in turnout among the young is going to discomfit many politicians.  Lodge and Birch argue that there won’t be any partisan effects, since politicians of both sides will start to appeal to young people and presumably each party will win an equal number of the new votes of young people.  I am less certain.  The partisanship of young people depends a lot on the prevailing climate when they come of age politically.  The Pew Center put out some data from the U.S. a while back and found “generational differences that reflect the political climate at the time when individuals were forming their political identity and loyalties.”  The appeals of parties and politicians may be less effective than the overall impact of the climate.  So whichever party isn’t doing well among young people when the plan was introduced could easily oppose it for strategic reasons.

Third, if every person were required to vote when they were first legally eligible, I suspect that parties would start targeting young people much earlier in an effort to build party loyalty during adolescence.  Some people might find political appeals to, say, 14-year-olds, problematic.  I am agnostic about that, personally, but I would note that whatever people tend to dislike about political campaigns—negativity, lying, money, etc.—will now be increasingly targeted at minors.

Here is a related study by Sarah Birch.  Previous Monkey Cage posts on compulsory voting are here, here, here, and here.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.


  • veblen's dog on May 02, 2012 2:59 PM:

    I don't find the studies particularly convincing in that they seem to show only correlation rather than causality.

    "...Other things being equal, registered voters who did not vote in 1998 had a 16.6% chance of voting in 1999, as compared to 63.3% among those who voted in 1998."

    This seems to me to be saying "those who were involved in 1998 still cared in 1999, while those who didn't give a damn in 1998, still didn't in 1999."

    Forcing low-info voters who don't care about politics to vote may irritate them, but I doubt it will turn them into concerned citizens.

  • come on on May 02, 2012 7:47 PM:

    Ok, showing that voter participation goes up when you force people to vote doesn't indicate that the policy is effective; that's just the definition of the policy.

  • Anonymous on May 03, 2012 12:48 PM:

    australia, i think, have mandatory voting rule with "none of the above" option.
    if that option is the majority, they have to pick someone else entirely new.
    i think they and italians have to pay penalties not to vote.

    the voter turnouts are not that low in US but the problem is demographic imbalance.
    that Republican old americans show up near 90% of time while the liberal youth's turnouts are only 40% or lower. even lower for states and local elections.
    middle age turnouts are fairly high but the poor don't vote, either making their preference tilted toward democrats only slightly.

    so the country is a more Democratic than Republican but the result always swings.
    i mean, look at the people we elected. Democrats are much closer to the representation of US population of income groups, ethnicities, and gender.

    i dont see why we won't move to at-home electronic voting in the future, though.
    when old republicans die, that is. (not saying i wish them dead, just stating the trend)

  • Diogenes on May 03, 2012 4:54 PM:

    "...to make voting compulsory". How about providing real choices not both owned by the plutocrats.

  • Daniel Kim on May 03, 2012 11:38 PM:

    One thing that could help quite a bit would be to make election day a national holiday, so people can take time off to vote without risking their jobs.

  • Martina on May 08, 2012 8:18 PM:

    In view of the fact that America has been dumbing down for the better part of 30 years, is it really a good idea to have compulsory voting, that is - more uninformed people voting than do so right now?

  • Matt McIrvin on May 09, 2012 11:18 AM:

    Compulsory for whom? Just registered voters?

    One of our biggest problems in the US is that so many people aren't even registered to vote, they have to register to vote, and there are restrictions in many places actively intended to make it harder to register, especially for college students. And I do think there's evidence that getting people registered motivates them to vote.

    How about compulsory, and as-automatic-as-possible, voter registration for all citizens of voting age? It ought to be possible; we can make people register for the draft.

    But the trend in many states is currently moving in the wrong direction, toward making registration harder and restricting registration drives.

  • Neil Bates on May 18, 2012 10:07 PM:

    How about paying people to vote? Not a whole lot, say $50 per national election, but that would encourage many. And yes, have NOTA as an option for everyone, and NOTA winning should have consequences.