The Magazine

Vote or Else

A modest proposal for curing election fraud.

Mar 21, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 25 • By ALLISON R. HAYWARD
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IN THE STATE OF WASHINGTON, it may be that a governor will serve for the next four years who was not properly elected. Voter registration rolls and election practices are sloppy enough--not just in Washington, mind you, but in many places--that in very close elections it may be impossible to know for sure which candidate has received more properly cast votes. (In three separate counts in Washington, the margins were 261, 42, and 129 votes out of 2.9 million cast.) It is past time we address this problem, and here's a thought: Maybe the United States should require eligible citizens to register to vote, and then to vote.

For most people, this idea is radical and distasteful. Why should we want presumably uninformed, apathetic people voting? Wouldn't they be influenced by caprice, last-minute mud, or improper entreaties? Isn't it a person's right not to vote if he doesn't want to? Only nasty one-party regimes make voting mandatory, right? And Venezuela, for one, requires its citizens to register and vote, showing that mandatory voting and massive fraud can coexist.

The usual defenses for mandatory voting seem tepid in contrast. People would be more "engaged" in government. The underclass would be better represented. "We, the people"--not some motivated subset--would elect representatives. It is not obvious that any of these arguments is true or, if true, is sufficient reason to require voting.

Moreover, it would seem American elections face more urgent challenges, voting fraud and voter intimidation being the most notorious. Yet it is as a palliative to these ills that mandatory voting would have its greatest appeal. That is because a mandatory system would require government to take voter registration--including the issue of fraud--seriously.

Suppose, as in Australia, eligible citizens were required to register and to appear at the polls on Election Day. Election administrators would need to know, first, who among the throng was eligible, and ensure that they registered in the appropriate place. Duplicate registrations and obsolete addresses would have to be purged. At election time, officials would need to ascertain accurately who had voted and who hadn't. No more question of whether precautions, such as requiring identification, would be intimidating. And it would be in the interest of a voter to make sure he was correctly identified. With better records, it would be more difficult to lard the rolls with phony registrations. Nor could the converse scam of "unregistering" valid voters be as easily perpetrated. For those voting absentee, the incentives would be much stronger to make sure their vote was received and cast properly, lest they face a fine for failing to vote.

The significant and sometimes mischievous role partisans now play in our current elections would diminish. Just as we don't see private interests going door to door helping people complete tax or immigration forms, the role special interests and parties now assume in registering and mobilizing voters would fade. There would be no reason to go to elaborate lengths to register or ferret out voters at election time--no more cause to slash the tires or block the phones of the other side's activists, or to pay cash bounties for registrations, subsidizing the duplicative, phony dreck that already clogs our voter rolls.

But isn't mandatory voting a little, um, totalitarian? One could argue that--although arguably no more so than having to file tax forms on a regular basis. A system of mandatory voting does not mean that individuals are forced to vote for any particular candidate, or even any candidate at all. If the United States were to follow a system like Australia's, mandatory registration and voting would be mitigated by the secret ballot. If voters do not care to vote, they can simply take a ballot and not vote it, or "undervote" by choosing some offices and not others.

Would mandatory voting favor liberals and Democrats over conservatives and Republicans? The conventional wisdom for decades has been that making voter registration and voting easier--broadening the "base," as it were--favors the Democratic party. However, people who know much more about this than I tell me that the conventional wisdom no longer necessarily obtains. When the base is broadened in some part by false and duplicative registration, as happens now, the side favored would seem to be the one willing to throw those votes into the pool, i.e., to commit fraud. That can have different partisan implications depending on where you live and what's at stake.