Does Mandatory Voting Change Politics?

Australia established the secret ballot (initially called in the U.S. “the Australian ballot”) and was one of the first countries to enact universal suffrage.  Australia also established mandatory voting nationwide in 1924.  While there has been some writing on how mandatory voting affects turnout or the theoretical arguments regarding whether it’s appropriate to mandate that people vote, including this article by Rick Hasen, few studies exist of whether mandatory voting affects the substantive policies elected governments end up adopting.  That’s why this new empirical study by Anthony Fowler, of Harvard’s Government Department, caught my eye.  The full article is at this link; here is the abstract:

Despite extensive research on voting, there is little evidence connecting turnout to tangible outcomes. Would election results and public policy be different if everyone voted? The adoption of compulsory voting in Australia provides a rare opportunity to address this question. First, I collect two novel data sources to assess the extent of turnout inequality in Australia before compulsory voting. Overwhelmingly, wealthy citizens voted more than their working-class counterparts. Next, exploiting the differential adoption of compulsory voting across states, I find that the policy increased voter turnout by 24 percentage points which in turn increased the vote shares and seat shares of the Labor Party by 7–10 percentage points. Finally, comparing across OECD countries, I find that Australia’s adoption of compulsory voting significantly increased turnout and pension spending at the national level. Results suggest that democracies with voluntary voting do not represent the preferences of all citizens. Instead, increased voter turnout can dramatically alter election outcomes and resulting public policies.

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