Here is a handy dandy  list of the main arguments I’ve encountered for compulsory voting. Alas, none are sound. Also, two arguments against compulsory voting, both of which are sound.





The Turnout Argument

  1. Compulsory voting produces high turnout.
  2. If compulsory voting produces high turnout, then compulsory voting is justified.
  3. Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.


The Consent Argument

  1. Democracy should be based on the consent of the people.
  2. Citizens show consent by voting.
  3. Therefore, a democracy without high electoral turnout rules without consent.
  4. Therefore, we should compel people to vote.


The Legitimacy Argument

  1. Democratic governments are illegitimate unless there is high voter turnout.
  2. Governments should be legitimate.
  3. There will not be high turnout unless there is compulsory voting.
  4. Therefore, democratic governments may impose compulsory voting.


The More Democratic Argument

  1. It is more democratic if everyone votes than if only part the population votes.
  2. We should do whatever is more democratic.
  3. Therefore, we should force everyone to vote.



The Demographic Argument

  1. Voters tend to vote for their self-interest.
  2. Politicians tend to give large voting blocs what they ask for.
  3. When voting is voluntary, the poor, minorities, the uneducated, and young people vote less than the rich, whites, the educated, or older people.
  4. If so, then under voluntary voting, government will tend to promote the interest of the rich, of whites, and of the old, over the interests of the poor, of minorities, or of the young.
  5. Under compulsory voting, almost every demographic and socio-economic group votes at equally high rates.
  6. Thus, under compulsory voting, government will promote everyone’s interests.
  7. Therefore, compulsory voting produces more representative government.
  8. If compulsory voting produces more representative government than voluntary voting, then compulsory voting is justified.
  9. Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.


The Trust and Solidarity Argument

  1. It is good for citizens to trust their government and to feel solidarity with one another.
  2. If there is high turnout, citizens will trust their government more and feel greater solidarity with one another.
  3. If 1 and 2, then whatever increases trust and solidarity is justified.
  4. Compulsory voting is necessary to ensure high turnout.
  5. Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.


The Generic Consequentialist Argument

  1. Compulsory voting would produce good consequence G.
  2. If compulsory voting would produce good consequence G, then compulsory voting is justified.
  3. Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.


The Duty to Vote Argument

  1. Citizens have a moral duty to vote.
  2. If citizens have a moral duty to do something, then government may force them to do it.
  3. Therefore, government may force citizens to vote. (I.e., compulsory voting is justified.)


The Gratitude Argument

  1. Citizens who fail to vote are ungrateful for their hard-won liberties. (Our troops died to protect those freedoms.)
  2. People should be grateful.
  3. Therefore, citizens should be compelled to vote.


The Autonomy Argument

  1. It is valuable for each person to be autonomous and self-directed, and to live by rules of her own making.
  2. In order for each person living in a shared political environment to be autonomous and self-directed, and to live by rules of her own making, she needs to have and exercise her right to vote.
  3. Compulsory voting ensures everyone exercises her right to vote.
  4. Therefore, compulsory voting enhances autonomy.
  5. If compulsory voting enhances autonomy, then compulsory voting is justified.
  6. Therefore compulsory voting is justified.


The Assurance Argument

  1. Low turnout occurs because citizens lack assurance other similar citizens will vote.
  2. Compulsory voting solves this assurance problem.
  3. If 1 and 2, then compulsory voting is justified.
  4. Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.


The Public Goods Argument

  1. Good governance is a public good.
  2. No one should free ride on the provision of such goods. Those who benefit from such goods should reciprocate.
  3. Citizens who abstain from voting free ride on the provision of good governance.
  4. Therefore, all citizens should vote.
  5. If all citizens should vote, then government should compel them to vote.
  6. Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.





The Burden of Proof Argument

  1. Because compulsory voting is compulsory, it is presumed unjust in the absence of a compelling justification.
  2. A large number of purported arguments for compulsory voting fail.
  3. There are no remaining plausible arguments that we know of.
  4. If 1-3, then, probably, compulsory voting is unjust.
  5. Therefore, probably, compulsory voting is unjust.


The Worse Government Argument

  1. The typical and median citizen who abstains (under voluntary voting) is more ignorant, misinformed, and irrational about politics than the typical and median citizen who votes.
  2. If so, then if we force everyone to vote, the electorate as a whole will then become more ignorant, misinformed, and irrational about politics. Both the median and modal voter will be more ignorant, misinformed, and irrational about politics.
  3. If so, in light of the influence voters have on policy, then compulsory voting will lead at least slightly more incompetent and lower quality government,
  4. It is (at least presumptively) unjust to impose more incompetent and lower quality government.
  5. Therefore, compulsory voting is (at least presumptively) unjust.


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Recently, Obama advocated compulsory voting in a town hall meeting in Ohio. Since I decisively refuted the case for compulsory voting last year, I take it Obama doesn’t read the relevant literature before he forms opinions about such things. Oh well. In this post, I’ll briefly explain why one of his explicit arguments for compulsory voting is wrong. You can read chapter two of my book for all the relevant citations. The evidence for the empirical claims I make below is overwhelming.

Obama offered what I’ve previously called the Demographic or Representativeness Argument for Compulsory Voting. It goes roughly like this:

  1. As a matter of fact, under a voluntary voting regime, the voting electorate–the people who choose to vote–ends up looking different from the population at large. White, male, middle-aged and older, high income, educated, employed, married, or wealthy people are much more likely to vote than non-white, female, young, low income, uneducated, unemployed, unmarried, and poor people.
  2. If so, then under a voluntary voting regime, the voting public is made up disproportionately of people who are already advantaged. The disadvantaged don’t vote in proportion to their actual population.
  3. Government tends to give people what they want.
  4. If 1-3, then government will tend to respond to the interests of the already advantaged, and tend to ignore or even undermine the interests of the disadvantaged.
  5. Compulsory voting makes everyone vote and ensures proportional voting.
  6. Therefore, compulsory voting will result in fair and just government, and is justified.

Premises 1-2 are correct! But the argument doesn’t work. Indeed, there’s so much wrong with it that I can’t even get to it all here. But let’s do some argument killing.

First, the least interesting criticism: Premise 5 is not right. Even in Australia, the disadvantaged voted less than the advantaged. You may have heard that “93%” of eligible Australians vote, but when I was writing the book, I discovered that the actual number is really more like 81%. Almost all registered voters vote in Australia, but a large percent of eligible Australians aren’t registered.

Second, this argument would work only if the disadvantaged minorities are large enough to form a powerful voting bloc. So, it makes sense when we’re talking about women, who form half the population, but not when we’re talking about Native Americans.

Third, the argument seems to presume that voter vote for their self-interest. But we have overwhelming empirical evidence, drawn from hundreds of studies, that they don’t vote their self-interest. Instead, they vote altruistically, for what they perceive to be in the national interest. So, it’s not obvious that we need to protect poor voters from high income voters, because high income voters are already trying to vote on behalf of poor voters.

Ah, you might say, but might advantaged voters be wrong or mistaken in their beliefs about what it takes to help disadvantaged voters? Absolutely! In fact, I’m pretty sure most of them are systematically mistaken. But this brings us to the fourth, most damning problem with the Demographic Argument. The disadvantaged are much more likely to be mistaken in their beliefs about what it takes to help them.

To know whom to vote for, it is not enough to know what political policies different politicians advocate. One also needs to know whether those politicians have any hope of implementing those policies, and what the likely effect of those policies would be. One thus needs massive amounts of social scientific knowledge. In our voluntary voting regime, most voters lack this knowledge, but current non-voters have even less of it. Yes, members of certain demographic groups tend to vote less than others. Their voice in government is thus weaker. Yet, those groups also tend to have little basic political or social scientific knowledge. They are often systematically misinformed. Compulsory voting just floods the polls with ignorant or misinformed voters.

Political knowledge and economic literacy are not evenly spread among all demographic groups. For instance, political knowledge, of the sort tested by the American National Election Studies, is strongly positively correlated with having a college degree, but negatively correlated with having a high school diploma or less. It is positively correlated with being in the top half of income earners, but negatively correlated with being in the bottom half. It is strongly positively correlated with being in the top quarter of income earners, and strongly negatively correlated with being in the bottom quarter. It is positively correlated with living in the Western United States, and negatively correlated with living in the South. It is positively correlated with being between the ages of 35-54, but negatively correlated with other ages. It is negatively correlated with being black, and strongly negatively correlated with being female.

By the way, this knowledge makes a big difference in what people advocate. As Scott Althaus, Bryan Caplan, and Martin Gilens have shown (each using independent sets of data), low information and high information people have systematically different political beliefs, and these differences are not explained by their demographic differences. So, for instance, high information Democrats favor free trade, while low information Democrats don’t, and this holds even after we correct for income or other demographic effects on political belief.

One might conjecture, “Oh, sure, currently people in disadvantaged groups have low information. But if we force them to vote, they will decide to become better informed!” Nice conjecture! Conjecturing sure is fun. But, alas, there are a bunch of empirical studies on this looking at various natural experiments, and the answer is no, compulsory voting doesn’t cause uninformed voters to become any better informed.

Fifth, even if we put these problems aside, there’s no need to force everyone to vote.  There is a cheaper, easier, equally effective, and less compulsory alternative. Rather than literally forcing all Americans to vote, we could select thirty thousand Americans at random, require only them to vote, and forbid anyone else from voting. Anyone familiar with basic statistics knows that this “voting lottery” would be equally representative of the American public as universal voting. It would solve the problem the Demographic Argument seems to identify. However, it takes less time and costs less money.

Okay, let’s skip past the bullshitand look at the real reason lots of people on the Left advocate compulsory voting. They advocate compulsory voting because they think it will help left-wing parties gain seats. After all, at first glance, it sure seems like the people who choose not to vote are more likely to vote Democratic than they are to vote Republican. But, again, that’s wrong. There are ways of studying this, and it turns out that compulsory voting has few partisan effects.

For instance, political scientists Raymond Wolfinger and Benjamin Highton say,


[There is a] widespread belief that “if everybody in this country voted, the Democrats would be in for the next 100 years.” …this conclusions…is accepted by almost everyone except a few empirical political scientists. Their analyses of survey data show that no objectively achieved increase in turnout—including compulsory voting—would be a boon to progressive causes or Democratic candidates. Simply put, voters’ prefers differ minimally from those of all citizens; outcomes would not change if everyone voted.

Wolfinger and Highton agree that compulsory voting would bring at best modest changes in electoral outcomes. And that’s just one study. Other studies find the same results. In her review of all the extant empirical work, Sarah Birch also finds that compulsory voting has little to no effect on partisan outcomes, except, perhaps, that it helps far right wing nationalist parties get a couple seats in proportional voting regimes.

So, to Democrats, I say, be careful what you wish for. If you force everyone to vote, you not only won’t help Democrats win, but you will change what Democrats want. An excerpt from my book:

The Ideological Elephant in the Room

Let’s be really frank here. There is unstated reason why many political theorists, political scientists, and philosophers are sympathetic to compulsory voting. Most of my American colleagues are Democrats. Many of them sensibly believe compulsory voting would help the Democratic Party. (Similar remarks apply to my colleagues outside the US with respect to their favored left-leaning parties.) As we saw in chapter 2, they are mistaken—the best available evidence indicates that compulsory voting has few partisan effects and does little to help left-leaning parties. However, suppose compulsory voting would in fact increase the power of the Democratic Party. If so, should that give my Democratic colleagues at least some reason to favor compulsion?

Perhaps not. Democrats are not united in their moral and political outlooks. High information Democrats have systematically different policy preferences from low information Democrats. Rich and poor Democrats have systematically different policy preferences. Compulsory voting gets more poor Democrats to the polls. But poor Democrats tend to be low information, while affluent Democrats tend to be high information voters. The poor more approved more strongly of invading Iraq in 2003. They more strongly favor the Patriot Act, of invasions of civil liberty, and torture, of protectionism, and of restricting abortion rights and access to birth control. They are less tolerant of homosexuals and more opposed to gay rights. In general, compared to the rich, the poor—including poor Democrats—are intolerant, economically innumerate, hawkish bigots. If compulsory voting were to help Democrats at all, it would probably help the bad Democrats. The Democrats would end up running and electing more intolerant, innumerate, hawkish candidates.


Again, this is a blog post. If you want citations for all these claims, check the book out of your college library.

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Regular readers of this blog will likely find the current issue of The Independent Review to be of significant interest.

In it, you’ll find an intra-libertarian debate on the merits of the Basic Income Guarantee. Mike Munger and I argue in favor of the policy, David Henderson and Robert Whales against. (My argument here is substantially different from the argument I made at Cato Unbound last year. That argument was a pragmatic, second-best argument that aimed to show that even libertarians who opposed the welfare state altogether should endorse a BIG as better than the status quo. In my new paper, I argue for a BIG on a more principled basis, drawing on the liberation opposition to coercion and the Lockean Proviso)

The issue also features an essay by Nicolás Maloberti on “Rawls and Bleeding Heart Libertarianism: How Well Do They Mix?“. Here’s the abstract:

In 1971, Harvard University philosopher John Rawls put forth an innovative argument for the welfare state, but today a new crop of thinkers invokes Rawls to justify a libertarian society. Their project is intriguing, but it is doubtful that these self-described “bleeding heart libertarians” can count on a Rawlsian framework to provide robust support for inviolable liberty.

Alas, the full issue won’t be online for six months. So if you want to read it now, you’ll have to subscribe, or order the single issue!

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