It is time to require every citizen of Connecticut to vote.

Miles Rapoport

As the governor, secretary of the state, state legislators, and registrars around the state address the challenges of making this November’s elections work, we should not lose sight of our election system’s two greatest problems —low voter participation and an electorate that is not fairly reflective of all the state’s people.

The solution to both these problems is quite straightforward: redefine voting as a universal civic duty, like serving on a jury.  This requirement to vote is currently used in 26 countries —places as diverse as Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Ecuador, Greece, Singapore, Switzerland, and Uruguay.

In Australia, participation in elections has been mandatory since 1924. A corollary is that government at all levels makes major efforts to enroll every citizen as a voter. There are energetic education efforts by public officials, political parties, and civil society organizations to inform people of their responsibilities.

Election day is a major day of community celebration. Participation is mandatory, but voters can cast a blank ballot, so voting for any candidate is not required.  After the election, people who did not participate are sent a letter asking the reason. If no reason is supplied after two attempts, people are fined the equivalent of $15-20.  The system is widely popular, and there has been no serious effort to change it for years.

Yet there has been virtually no discussion of this possibility in the United States; it is time to change that.

Connecticut has been willing to make innovative changes in campaign financing, voter registration, and in the restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions, though it has lagged many other states in allowing early voting and mail-in voting.  The adoption of universal civic duty voting would be a bold leadership step forward.

I have had the privilege of co-chairing, along with the remarkable journalist E.J. Dionne, the Universal Voting Working Group. It has been a collaborative effort of the Brookings Institution and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School.  Twenty-seven scholars, advocates, and election experts worked for two years studying the experience of other countries and working through how the idea could work in the United States.

On July 20, we released our report: Lift Every Voice:  The Urgency of Universal Civic Duty Voting.”  Our conclusion is that making voting a universal civic duty, which could be done at the federal, state, or municipal level, would have major benefits for American democracy.

Most obviously, it would dramatically increase participation in elections. In Australia, Belgium, and Uruguay, turnout is between 85% and 92% of eligible voters in every election. By contrast, In the 2018 elections, the U.S. achieved record turnout for a midterm election, but that was still at an anemic rate of 53.4%.  In 2014, turnout was even lower at 40%.  Connecticut ranked 18th in the country in 2018, with turnout of 54.4% — only slightly above the average.  We have the opportunity to jump to the head of the class.

With universal civic duty voting, participation would also be far more reflective of the voting age population.  In the U.S., voting rates are dramatically skewed by income, education, age, and race.  One of the reasons jury service has been mandatory is so that jurors will reflect the population as a whole, and as a result will render fairer judgments.  It was a major demand of the Southern civil rights movement that African-Americans be allowed to serve on juries —actually, that they be compelled to serve on juries. I believe the same logic applies to voting.

The potential adoption of universal civic duty voting would also have significant collateral benefits. It would encourage the state to continue to improve our policies to enable everyone to vote in the most accessible ways. The prospect of making voting a civic duty would be strong encouragement for the state to adopt early voting, expanded mail-in voting, and other administrative reforms. In addition, it would affect the behavior of other institutions: if every 18-year-old were required to vote, schools would have an extremely strong incentive to provide robust civic education.  Civic organizations would do more public education about voting, and employers would be more likely to allow people time off to vote and participate.

It is also likely that campaigns will change for the better. If everyone is voting, then everyone is always listening, and candidates will have to work to attract a broad base of support, rather than focusing on rallying their own base and discouraging opponents’ supporters from turning out.   Persuading every citizen that you have something to offer will be a healthy discipline for candidates and parties alike.

There will certainly be objections to the idea of civic duty voting.  Libertarians will be concerned about any additional government mandates. Among advocates for poor communities, the idea of a fine, even a small one, will raise alarms. And immigrant communities could well worry about inadvertent violations by non-citizens.

The working group took all these objections seriously.  The report argues strongly that civic duty voting is constitutional, since the option to cast a blank ballot, vote for “none of the above,” or express a conscientious objection to voting, all will assure voters of their ability to ‘speak’ as they wish.  And the report contains multiple recommendations for implementation to minimize the potential impacts of any enforcement mechanisms.  One example is ensuring that any fines assessed can be fulfilled by community service, and they cannot generate interest or penalties for non-payment.

Connecticut has the opportunity to step out front and create an election system where everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s vote is counted, and a civic culture where everyone is involved.

This is a moment in our country where old assumptions are being challenged, and bold new ideas are being considered. Universal civic duty voting is that kind of idea.  It deserves a serious conversation, and Connecticut can demonstrate real leadership in making that happen.

Miles Rapoport is Connecticut’s former Secretary of the State.

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