The results of the 2016 election have continued to serve as a source of anger and fear for Americans who had hoped to see Hillary Clinton take the presidency, many of whom live here in New York. The disappointing outcome has brought to the forefront an issue that is always discussed in the aftermath of elections, namely that something must be done to improve America’s abysmal voter turnout. The U.S. ranks 34th among 40 developed countries, with a whopping 42 percent — nearly 100 million eligible voters — either unable or unwilling to make their voices heard. Of these Americans, around 30 percent deliberately chose to abstain from voting in the last presidential election, either because of lack of interest or because they did not like either candidate. Among various other necessary reforms, it is time to join the ranks of the 22 nations that make voting mandatory for its citizens.
Mandatory voting is not some Orwellian practice that takes place only in dictatorships like North Korea. In the majority of countries with compulsory voting laws in place, there is rarely any enforcement of these laws or punishment given to those who break them. And yet, some political scientists think these laws increase voter turnout simply because they indicate to voters that they’re expected to show up on Election Day. In other words, the institutionalized stigma against abstention is enough to deter people who see voting as an optional activity instead of as a civic duty. In countries such as Greece, Brazil and Belgium, mandatory voting laws function in much the same way that opt-out organ donor policies work: by establishing lazy or selfish behavior as abnormal instead of the default.
Voter turnout is a complicated and nuanced issue that involves the rights of ex-felons, the sovereignty of American territories, laws that obstruct the voting rights of lower-income and minority voters and much more. Voter turnout could be increased by giving the electorate more viable options, by impressing upon the public the importance of voting in the midterm elections and — at least according to one study — working to give elections as a whole more of a festive, cultural atmosphere. And, as many pundits and politicians — including Senator Bernie Sanders — have pointed out, it is absurd at this point that Election Day is not yet a federal holiday. However, for the millions of Americans who feel that voting is either beneath them or not worth the effort, mandatory voting laws such as those in Belgium would do elections a world of good going forward.
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