“Compulsory Voting’s American History”

Very excited to read this Harvard Law Review student note by Aidan Calvelli. Here’s the Introduction:

Voter turnout was higher in the 2020 U.S. presidential election than it had been in 120 years.1 Nearly sixty-seven percent of citizens over eighteen voted that November, exceeding rates that hovered around sixty percent in the twenty-first century and never broke sixty percent from 1972 to 2000.2 Some pundits have read this recent record as a triumph.3 But it can also be seen as a travesty: even with the best turnout since 1900, nearly eighty million eligible voters stayed home.4

Slim turnout has long prompted reform efforts.5 Yet the United States has always shied from one direct solution: requiring everyone to vote. “Compulsory voting” — where legislatures require attendance at the polls, often enforced by fines or penalties — exists in around two dozen countries, but nowhere in America,6 relegating the idea to “goo-goo reformers”7 and law review notes.8

Recently, however, compulsory voting has entered mainstream debate. President Obama floated the idea in 2015 to fight money in politics and diversify the electorate.9 A 2018 New York Times article piqued interest in Australia’s mandatory voting system.10 And in 2022, E.J. Dionne Jr. and Miles Rapoport published a popular book arguing that “universal civic duty voting” will end voter suppression, improve representation, and boost belief in government.11 Their work has inspired legislators in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Washington to introduce compulsory voting bills.12

This nascent debate marks an exciting effort to make the actual electorate more representative of the eligible electorate and potentially shift political power.13 Yet modern debates have so far largely overlooked one angle of analysis: history. Though no writer since the 1950s has devoted more than two paragraphs to the history of compulsory voting efforts in the United States,14 the idea has a rich American tradition. Policies first emerged before the Founding. And debates especially picked up beginning in the 1880s and through the Progressive Era, when twelve states considered the policy, including two — Massachusetts and North Dakota — that passed amendments letting their legislatures enact it.15

This Note begins to excavate that history. In doing so, the Note illustrates the importance of the fact that these debates happened, highlights Progressives’ competing visions of democracy, and seeks to inform how advocates consider the policy today. Taking seriously the issue some contemporaries called the “most important” the Progressives faced16 can help us better understand their democracy — and ours.

The Note proceeds as follows. Part I traces the history of attempts to institute compulsory voting in the United States, focusing primarily on the Progressive Era. Part II canvasses the main arguments at Progressive Era conventions for and against compulsory voting. And Part III considers what these debates illustrate about Progressive democracy and policy debates today.

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