Americans Are Awful at Voting, but Is Making It Mandatory the Right Idea?

March 19, 2015 Updated: March 19, 2015

It’s no secret that the American voter turnout during every election season is abysmal. But is forcing Americans to vote—punishable by law—the right solution to the problem?

President Barack Obama floated the idea of mandatory voting in the United States while speaking to a civic group in Cleveland on Wednesday.

“If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country,” Obama said, calling the move “potentially transformative.” Not only that, he said, but universal voting would “counteract money more than anything.”

So how bad are Americans at voting? Pretty bad, according to the United States Election Project and the Pew Research Center.

Less than 37 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots during the 2014 midterm elections, says the Election Project, which made it the lowest turnout since 1942.

That’s 144 million eligible Americans who didn’t vote.

Since the 1840s, it’s been the case that voter turnout is lower for midterms than presidential elections. In 2008, Obama was elected with a near record turnout of 57.1 percent. Two years later, only 36.9 percent of Americans showed up at the polls. 

A Pew study found that Americans who don’t vote usually are poorer, less educated, more racially diverse, and younger. Pew said in late 2014 after the midterms, “These demographic differences are not new; similar gaps were seen between the likely electorate and nonvoters in 2012 and 2010.”

“Fully 45 percent of nonvoters say they have had trouble paying bills in the past year, compared with 30 percent of likely voters. Nonvoters are also much more likely than voters to borrow money from family or friends,” it added.

On Wednesday, Obama noted the trend.

“The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily toward immigrant groups and minority groups,” the president said. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.”

Fully 45 percent of nonvoters say they have had trouble paying bills in the past year, compared with 30 percent of likely voters.
— Pew Research Center study

A few countries that force citizens to vote include Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and Belgium. Those who don’t vote have to either face a fine or  provide a valid excuse. According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, at least 26 countries have mandatory voting in place.

But as one might imagine, mandatory voting isn’t a perfect solution.

“Turning the vote out might not be a problem, but wooing disengaged citizens now requires banal sloganeering and crass misleading negative advertising. To me, this can diminish the democratic experience for those who take the time to think through the issues,” writes Australian political scientist Haydon Manning with Flinders University of South Australia in an opinion piece for CNN.

Obama also said he thought it would be “fun” for the United States to consider amending the Constitution to change the role that money plays in the electoral system. But don’t hold your breath. “Realistically, given the requirements of that process, that would be a long-term proposition,” he said.  

The Associated Press contributed to this report.