I’m not in favor of a voting lottery. However, I think the best arguments for compulsory voting never succeed in justifying compulsory voting. Instead, at best, they justify replacing our current system with a voting lottery.
Consider the “Representativeness Argument” for compulsory voting: Under a voluntary voting regime, the median, mean, and modal voter is white, maler, richer, more advantaged, straighter, etc., than the median, mean, and modal eligible voter. That is, when voting is voluntary, more advantaged people are more likely to vote than less advantaged people. It seems reasonable to worry that the government will thus fail to properly represent the real interests of the less advantaged.
Now, on the contrary, I think forcing the less advantaged to vote will tend to harm them rather than help them. A rational poor person who knew the literature on how ignorant poor people are wouldn’t want to have poor people vote en masse. But suppose I’m wrong about all that and the above argument is right. Compel people to vote? Nah. Use a voting lottery instead.
In a voting lottery, all citizens have the same equal fundamental political status. While in universal suffrage, every citizen has one equal vote, in a voting lottery, every citizen has equal eligibility to vote. Elections proceed normally, with candidates working to gain support from voting-lottery eligible citizens. Shortly before the election, the system selects a pre-determined number of citizens at random. These citizens—and these citizens only—become “electors”, imbued with the power to vote. To ensure turnout, the government pays each elector a substantial sum to vote.[i] They are not forced to vote. We might perhaps ask them to sign a contract committing them to voting (in exchange for the payment), and then allow them to be punished for breach of contract if they renege. This involves compulsion, but only compulsion to which citizens genuinely consent.
For instance, in a US presidential election, we could select 20,000 citizens randomly from all eligible voters. We pay them $1000 to vote. They and they alone decide the election. In a local election, we might select a much smaller number of local citizens, and pay them significantly less.
This is just one way to instantiate a voting lottery. The exact details will not be important here. The important idea is that we select a small, but not too small, subset of the population, given them the right to vote, and then pay them to vote. Note that we could also have voting lotteries for any set of elections where we are worried that disadvantaged citizens are not voting proportionately.
Since the 20,000 citizens are selected at random, they will be representative of the country at large. In terms of their demographics, socioeconomic statuses, political opinions, and so on, the 20,000 will be a mirror image of all eligible voters in the US.
Of course, there remains the problem of “random sampling error,” i.e., that the 20,000 citizens will not be perfectly representative of all eligible voters in the country. Yet, the greater the number of electors, the smaller the margin of error. Let’s do some statistics. The United States has about 207 million eligible voters. 20,000 electors produce a statistical confidence level of 99 percent, at a confidence interval of 0.9, with a margin of error of only 0.69. So, the lottery would be extremely accurate.
You may be familiar with Gallup and Rasmussen polls, which attempt to predict the outcomes of the election ahead of time. These polls use a sample set of only 1500 or so citizens to try to gauge the voting behavior of the citizenry at large. The polls are quite accurate. But the voting lottery is far more accurate than these polls, with a far lower margin of error at a higher confidence level.
Voting lotteries are not just as equally representative as compulsory voting. At current levels of technology, they may even be more accurate—more representative—than compulsory voting. It often surprises the public to hear this, but vote counting in real elections is not perfectly accurate. Every vote counting technology or method has a significant margin of error. Political scientist David Kimball estimates that the residual vote rate (one kind of error rate) in presidential elections tends to be between 1 and 2 percent.[ii] One average, hand counting of ballots results in a 2 percent error rate.[iii] In general, if the Democratic and Republican candidates in a US presidential election are within one percentage point on the popular vote, you should treat the result as a statistical tie. In general, the more votes that must be counted, the greater the margin of error. Thus, if we want the voting population to be representative of the voting eligible population, a voting lottery may be superior to compulsory voting.
Also, in the United States, the Electoral College makes it so some people’s votes count for less than others. A Virginian vote is more likely to decide a presidential election than an Oregonian vote. A voting lottery eliminates this bias.
Note that even under compulsory voting systems, a significant portion of the population still abstains from voting. In Australia, typically 5-7 percent of registered voters do not vote. The 93 percent of voters who do vote are not perfectly representative of all eligible voters. Poor minorities are still less likely to vote than rich whites. Also, Australia’s much-lauded 93 percent turnout is misleading. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, 13.1 million citizens voted out of a voting-age population of 16.2 million. In fact, only about 81 percent of eligible voters in Australia vote. 93 percent of registered voters vote, but over 10 percent of the population does not register to vote.[iv]
Voter lotteries have other advantages over compulsory voting. Voter lotteries are less expensive, even if we pay electors to vote. For a federal election, the voting lottery would cost $20 million in electors’ fees. Add administrative expenses, such as expenses for conducting the lottery, counting votes, and so on. Suppose the voting lottery is extremely expensive to conduct—suppose it would cost $50 million total. That may seem like a lot. It’s not. In contrast, the administrative costs of the 2000 US federal election were about $1 billion, according to Caltech and MIT’s Voter Technology Project.[v]
Voter lotteries not only cost state and local governments less money, but they cost citizens less time. Suppose we force all 207 million eligible American citizens to vote. Suppose compulsory voting advocates get their dream outcome—suppose everyone votes. Now suppose voting takes each citizen on average one hour, including time spent driving or walking back and forth to the polling station. Compulsory voting would thus cost 207 million hours of our time. This is equivalent to 300 full average American lifetimes spent voting. It is equivalent to 5 million American work weeks spent voting. This time has an opportunity cost. What other valuable things could Americans do in this time? In contrast, the voting lottery takes far less time.
[i] We might require employers to give electors a day off to vote, as well. However, this trades compulsion against citizens as voters for compulsion against employers.
[ii] The residual vote rate is the percent of votes that were cast but not counted for one reason or another. See David C. Kimball, “Summary Table on Voting Technology and Residual Vote Rates,” (St Louis: University of Missouri, 14 December 2005), URL: <http://www.umsl.edu/~kimballd/rtables.pdf> See also Martha Kropf and David C. Kimball, Helping America Vote: The Limits of Election Reform (London: Routledge, 2011): 37-44; Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart III, “Residual Votes Attributable to Technology,” Journal of Politics 67 (2005): 365-89.
[iii] Stephen N. Goggin, Michael D. Byrne, and Juan E. Gilbert, “Post-Election Auditing: Effects of Procedure and Ballot Type on Manual Counting Accuracy, Efficiency, and Auditor Satisfaction and Confidence,” Election Law Journal 11 (2012): 36-51.
[iv] See the tables available at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, URL: <http://www.idea.int>
[v] Caltech/MIT Voting Project, “Voting: What Is, and What Could Be,” (Caltech/MIT, July 2001): 13, URL: <http://www.vote.caltech.edu/sites/default/files/ voting_what_is_what_could_be.pdf>
Later, I consider an argument from Bill Galston, in which he argues we should use compulsory voting to stop non-voters from free-riding on voters. He says that non-voters receive the benefits of democracy without paying for its upkeep, and the right way to pay for it is through voting. But, I respond, this doesn’t work:
Galston uses the analogy of jury duty. Juries play a vital role in the criminal justice system. No one—except foaming-at-the-mouth libertarians and anarchists—thinks it is unjust for government to compel citizens to serve on juries.
Galston also uses the analogy of the draft. If we are under a dire existential threat, we might have no choice but to compel young citizens to fight for our defense.
However, these analogies might undermine rather than support the case for compulsory voting. Consider jury duty again. Imagine someone said, “Jury duty plays a vital role in maintaining criminal justice. Therefore, we should compel all citizens to serve on the jury every time there is a criminal trial.” That argument would seem absurd. We don’t need or want everyone to be a juror on every trial. Rather, at most, we want a small number of people to serve as jurors for each trial, say, 12 people per trial.
We don’t compel every citizen to serve on every jury. We don’t even compel every citizen to serve on at least one jury. Instead, we use a lottery system. To make sure we get the jury members we need, we randomly select a small subset of qualified citizens to serve as jurors. Most Americans never serve on a jury their entire lives.
Similarly, when using a draft, we would not force every American to fight unless we needed every American to fight. Rather, we would use a lottery. If we need 50,000 troops, we randomly select 50,000 citizens from a pool. Maybe we instead select 70,000 to ensure we meet our needs. But we don’t force everyone to take up arms.
And so, again, Galston’s free rider argument doesn’t support compulsory voting, but, at most a voting lottery.