People really don’t like their choices for president this year. A recent CBS poll found Republican nominee Donald Trump’s favorability ratings at 31 percent, while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings were up 5 points to 36 percent.
Given such outright dislike for the candidates, polls project that voters may stay home or vote for a third-party candidate. The CBS poll shows that 7 percent said they would stay home. When Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was included, 10 percent said they would vote for him. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, was not included.
The problem is, those looking to support a third-party candidate may be out of luck. Johnson is on the ballot in only 36 states, Stein in 24. Voters disaffected by the major-party nominees may have no option. As a result, we may see a low-turnout election in which only half the nation’s voters decide the direction of the country.
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Is this a problem? Not necessarily. Voters who don’t particularly feel represented by Trump or Clinton shouldn’t be forced to vote for them. What is problematic is the effect low turnout would have on down-ballot races.
Congressional, statewide and local elections tend to have higher turnout in presidential election years. Take for example turnout in California in 2010 and 2012. In Sen. Barbara Boxer’s re-election race in 2010, 9.99 million ballots were cast in a fairly competitive election. However, in 2012, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s much-less-competitive re-election race garnered 12.57 million ballots.
The fact that many voters do not turn out for lower races arguably has more effect on the status quo of the country than a presidential election. Low voter turnout could have far more repercussions as to who controls the Senate. With at least 11 competitive Senate races, the direction of the next Congress hangs in the balance, though many voters, disillusioned by the presidential election, may avoid the polls.
What is the solution? Twenty-two countries have some form of compulsory voting, and for many it is not a new concept. Argentina and Australia have had compulsory voting since the early 1900s, and Belgium has had it since 1892. Even better, it works.
Australia boasts a turnout rate in the mid-90 percent range. The benefits of compulsory voting are simple: When a higher proportion of a population participates, it legitimizes the electoral results. With only 9 percent of the U.S. population participating in the presidential nomination this year, a compulsory voting law would have likely resulted in a higher satisfaction rate for the two major-party candidates.
Opponents of big campaign contributions and dark money may also find compulsory voting agreeable because there would be less need for spending lots of money to convince voters to turn out. Of course, the added benefit of having a government that is truly by the people certainly helps; representatives would have a greater incentive to understand their constituencies, rather than just their party’s constituencies.
Of course, in the United States, we value our First Amendment right to free speech – even if our speech is that we have no opinion. Naturally, a requirement to vote seems to go against this freedom, but in reality, the secret ballot ensures that those who want to issue a blank ballot, can.
What about the constitutionality of the matter? Can Congress pass a law that compels citizens to vote? Chief Justice John Roberts answered that question in his ruling on the Affordable Care Act – as long as the legislation imposes the penalty of not voting as a tax, the Supreme Court has opened the door.
So, is it time to invoke compulsory voting? Perhaps. In an election in which neither major party appeals to American citizens, the country needs another means to get citizens to vote in other consequential races.
Neil S. Chaturvedi is an assistant professor in the department of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.