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Is 'Compulsory Voting' The Answer?

Jun 1, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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William Galston thinks the key to less polarization in the electorate is compulsory voting.  It's the disaffected, the angry, who vote.  The Howard Beales of the world.  If everyone — including those in the less intense middle — voted, you would get fewer ideologues in office.

The Brookings Institution scholar is among those who are dismayed at the turnout in this country.  Those in the wide middle of the spectrum are the ones who abstain from voting, and Galston thinks that's not good.  Get more people in the process by making it easier to vote through things like liberalized absentee voting.

It's good for democracy, he says.

But there's a catch to compulsory voting.  You don't vote, you pay a fine.

He is encouraged by the Australian system that that imposes a penalty — anywhere from $20 to $70 — on those who don't vote.

Galston wrote about these ideas in a Brookings policy brief that was released today, and he talked about them with NPR's Robert Siegel, an interview that will air tonight on "All Things Considered."

Galston believes that the "participation of less ideologically committed voters" would lead to depolarization.  He concedes that while "passionate partisanship infuses the system with energy," the U.S. electorate is as polarized as it was back in the 1890s, which "erects roadblocks to problem-solving."  And while many "committed partisans prefer gridlock to compromise," gridlock is "no formula for effective governance."

Australia had voting participation at around 60 percent before it instituted mandatory voting, and now it's up to 95 percent.

But, as Robert pointed out, an ABC News poll indicated that 72 percent of Americans are opposed to compulsory voting.  Isn't this a non-starter?

Galston conceded that it could be tough but added that perceptions change.  Just look at the public's turnaround on "don't ask, don't tell," he said.

Robert also asked about the non-voters.  Are they of the same political persuasion of those who vote?  Galston said they are more in the middle, less ideological than those on the right or the left.

You can hear the interview tonight on "All Things Considered."

But you are not compelled to listen.

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