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Salvo 12.14.2022 10 minutes

The Conservative Case for Compulsory Voting

US elections

A terrible idea whose time has come.

Figuring out how to save the nation is obviously a high priority for conservatives. But however we plan to save it, we can’t make much progress until we start winning more elections than we lose. One of the most interesting debates currently playing out on the Right is how to respond to the mail-in/absentee/early voting ploys that the Democrats have now perfected—tactics that gave a somnambulant Joe Biden the Oval Office in 2020, neutralized a “red wave” in the 2022 midterm elections, and which seem sufficient to ensure Democratic rule well into the future.

There is no palatable choice for how to proceed in the face of these manipulations. Ned Ryun and Erik Root advocate one option in their essay “Fortify-or-Die.” Their title alludes to a report in TIME magazine (conveniently published two weeks after Joe Biden’s installation as president) which admitted that there was a “behind the scenes” “conspiracy” and “shadow effort” to “fortify” electoral procedures and manipulate precedents in order to deny Trump a second term. For Ryun and Root, if conservatives want to win elections, they now face no choice but to learn and master the dirty tricks that the Left has refined to maintain their stranglehold on Our (read: “Their”) Democracy.

Glenn Ellmers gives an articulate account of the other option: we refuse to descend to their level. He argues that to play the Left’s game would simply accept that our “elections” have very little to do with the “will of the majority” and are instead brutal contests of power politics bereft of any principles that formerly held sway in our constitutional republic. Ellmers rightly notes that because the Left has been fully committed to this kind of realpolitik for the better part of a century, it is extremely unlikely that we could beat them at their own craven machinations. Essentially, he argues for the long game: we allow the Left to rack up win after rigged win in the short term and wait for their hubris and authoritarian inclinations to drive the nation into the ground, thereby finally and completely offending the little-d democratic sensibilities of the American people. These outcomes, it is hypothesized, would pave the way for a restoration of the Constitution (and the electoral fortunes of conservatives).

There are merits to both options, but we need to make a choice—and quickly. If we must choose one of the two, I am partial to Ellmers’s path: it seems to me that to accept a challenge where we race Democrats to final, total, autocratic rule-by-fiat would be tantamount to abandoning democracy altogether. But I’m not wholly convinced that these are the only two options.

There is a third option, which may both improve the Right’s prospects for electoral success and increase the prospects for the restoration of America’s founding principles. Many conservatives won’t like it, but we should make voting mandatory for all American citizens who are old enough to vote. This could be a better cure for our maladies than the ones described above. Only five years ago, I would have agreed that this is a horrible idea, and even now, there would need to be much careful consideration done before making voting compulsory.

Unpredictability Enables Manipulation and Fraud

Compared to other western nations, the United States has a very high turnout rate for registered voters. But it is also true that the percentage of voting-age citizens who actually cast a ballot is comparatively low in America. In large part, this is because we have an “opt-in” process for voter registration. Whereas many nations automatically register citizens as eligible voters once they reach the minimum age—Australia, Argentina, and Brazil are among the countries which mandate voting and enforce participation by means of fines—we require citizens actively to decide to register and complete the necessary paperwork. This means that many Americans are never registered. But it also means that those who are registered are highly likely to cast a ballot—they registered out of a political motivation that logically carries over into the act of voting. These numbers matter because the predictability of voter behavior is a powerful tool for assessing the fairness of an election.

People who are skeptical of conservatives’ claims that there is considerable fraud in our elections (especially in 2020 and 2022) dismiss those assertions because they say that they haven’t been presented with “hard evidence.” This is largely true. Nevertheless, there were a number of statistical anomalies and curious coincidences that occurred in the 2020 presidential election, for example. Still, under the current system, the mere existence of an anomaly doesn’t prove any malfeasance. If there was so much ballot manipulation, critics ask, why hasn’t anyone been able to prove criminal wrongdoing?

Of course, it was always an exaggeration that there was no proof of fraud. But even if that was true, it misses an important point: most of the procedural changes prior to recent elections ensured that many of the means for proving fraud were deliberately erased. The absence of reliable chain-of-custody records; sending mail-in ballots to every registered voter; allowing third-party ballot harvesting; setting up unsupervised locations for collecting ballots; allowing mail-in ballots with no signatures; closing off the ballot-counting process from public view—all of these measures have allowed forms of manipulation that would be very hard to exhaustively prove. The U.S. boasts one of the highest turnout rates of registered voters in the world, with 94 percent. But bad actors can use the inactive 6 percent on the voting rolls in some profoundly undemocratic ways—ways that could certainly flip elections in a nation that is divided down the middle politically.

As a result of these trends, the outcomes of our elections are hard to predict. There’s no way to know how many people will vote with any degree of precision, much less who they will vote for. This indeterminacy makes it harder to prove fraud. It’s worth recalling that in 2020, Joe Biden broke the record to become the presidential candidate who received the most votes ever—and he didn’t just break the record; he smashed it by over 10 million votes. This should seem strange to you. After all, Biden was a doddering old man who campaigned from his basement. He only won the nomination because other candidates (who were generating much more enthusiasm than he was in the early primaries) dropped out of the race. Any ballot-fraud denialist will assure us that Biden’s 81 million votes didn’t come from Biden-lovers but rather from Trump-haters. But Trump also broke the old record for the highest vote total by about 4 million ballots. Further, he increased his total from 2016. Odd, then, that he is the only incumbent ever to gain votes in his reelection bid but lose reelection. Nothing to see here, though. The election was safe and secure. Maybe our safest ever.

Still…since 2004, U.S. presidential elections have been reliably racking up total counts between 120 and 130 million votes. Doesn’t it seem strange that while the 2016 election topped out at about 129 million ballots cast, 2020 saw that number jump by about 25 million votes? Suspicious. But again, this “proves” nothing. Sure, the fraud denialists will tell us, there might have been a few bad ballots mixed in. But nothing large-scale. Nothing “systemic.” People were just really motivated this time.

And maybe they are right. We can’t say, partly because the fact of the matter is that we have no reliable means to predict how many ballots will be cast. It might be 120 million. It might be 150 million. Who knows? Rest easy, though. Vote by mail is safe and secure.

Vote or Die

Mandatory voting would partially solve these problems. We would have a very good idea of how many ballots there should be based on census data—not only nationally but in every individual town and city in America. While it is true that there would remain other ways to manipulate the election, we would have a precise number of votes that we would expect to be cast in, say, Philadelphia or Atlanta. Any total that exceeds the maximum number of ballots could only be explained by fraud. Some might say that we couldn’t ensure that everyone votes so the totals would be lower than we would expect. But after a few cycles, we could anticipate how much lower the totals tend to be. And anyway, it wouldn’t be that hard to get everyone to vote—if authorities took the requirement seriously. The IRS expects you to file a tax return, and you know it. So, you file a tax return.

Those with libertarian sensibilities will no doubt take offense that the government would now be denying citizens the freedom not to vote. But in most countries where voting is mandatory, people have the right to cast a blank ballot or a null vote. Compulsory voting doesn’t so much demand that you vote—it demands that you check in at your polling place on election day (or return the mail-in ballot that you received). Plus, if everyone was required to vote, there would be a good case for making voting day a national holiday—something the Left has desired for generations.

Another potential benefit of mandatory voting proposals is that they would be very difficult for the Left to oppose. After all, they are the great champions of voting rights, access, enfranchisement, and inclusion. They despise suppression of votes—or so they say. How, then, could they reject a plan to require every eligible citizen to cast a ballot? In truth, the Left would hate this plan, if only because the current inability to forecast the total number of votes benefits them: the unpredictability helps to conceal any large-scale fraud. Still, it’s hard to imagine what objections would be available for the Left to resist a plan for universal voting.

Mandatory voting would also certainly disrupt the patterns we have come to expect from the popular vote totals. What would the results of a presidential election in New York state look like if every New Yorker had to cast a ballot? How about Texas? Montana? We don’t know, but I suspect that we might learn that silent majorities still exist—perhaps in some unexpected places. We might soon find that conservatives would be calling for the elimination of the Electoral College, and progressives would become vocal defenders of that institution.

There are many other benefits (and some drawbacks) to compulsory participation. It would encourage the vast numbers of Americans who are simply uninterested (or uninformed) to educate themselves. In that way, the plan might usher in a new era of civic participation. It would also incentivize candidates to moderate their positions. Right now, our election procedures encourage candidates to motivate the base of their party. But in a compulsory system, the political junkies and ideological purists would be a minority of the electorate. If those running for office began trying to appeal to the average American rather than the average Fox News or CNN viewer, we may finally find a means to begin the depolarization that much of the nation desires.

I agree with most readers that in an ideal situation, citizens of a free society should be able to choose whether they wish to participate in the political process. But we do not live in an ideal situation. Compulsory voting would be such a disruption to the practices of voting and campaigning that it would fundamentally transform the practice of retail politics in America. In effect, we would be pressing the “reset” button on our democracy. And while it is true that there would be ways to manipulate this process too, they would necessarily be different ways than the ones currently practiced, which disproportionately benefit the Left. At least then if we wanted to rig our elections, both sides would have to learn to do it again—this time starting from square one.

There are undoubtedly many problems with this proposal, and it may, in fact, be a terrible idea. But our current electoral situation is pretty terrible in its own right. The choices before us—keep our hands clean and lose a rigged game or accept the debasement of our elections and beat the Left by debasing them further—both seem intolerable. And of course, it remains to be seen whether the Right would even be allowed to use the tactics currently employed by the Left—at the point that conservatives mastered these techniques, the rules would probably change again. I’m not sure if these really are the only options, but to them I add mandatory voting. They want inclusion and accessibility? Maybe we should let them have it.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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