The United States prides itself as the beacon of democracy, but it's very likely no president has ever been elected by a majority of American adults.
It's our own fault — because voter participation rates are running below 60 percent, a candidate would have to win 85 percent or more of the vote to be elected by a majority.
Compulsory voting, as exists in Australia and more than two dozen other countries, would fix that problem. As William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues, "Jury duty is mandatory; why not voting?"
Mandating voting has a clear effect: It raises participation rates. Before Australia adopted compulsory voting in 1924, for example, it had turnout rates similar to those of the United States. After voting became mandatory, participation jumped from 59 percent in the election of 1922 to 91 percent in the election of 1925.
The political scientists Lisa Hill and Jonathon Louth of the University of Adelaide note that "turnout rates among the voting-age population in Australia have remained consistently high and against the trend of steadily declining voting participation in advanced democracies worldwide."
For economists, the puzzle is not why voting participation rates are so low in voluntary systems, but why they're so high. The so-called paradox of voting, highlighted in a 1957 book by the political scientist Anthony Downs, occurs because the probability that any individual voter can alter the outcome of an election is effectively zero. So if voting imposes any cost, in terms of time or hassle, a perfectly rational person would conclude it's not worth doing. The problem is that if each person were to reach such a rational conclusion no one would vote, and the system would collapse.
Mandatory voting solves that collective action problem by requiring people to vote and punishing nonvoters with a fine. In Australia, the penalty starts small and rises significantly for those who repeatedly fail to vote.
Beyond simply raising participation, compulsory voting could alter the role of money in elections. Turn-out-the-vote efforts, often bankrolled by big-money groups, would become largely irrelevant. Negative advertising could be less effective, because a central aim of such ads is to discourage participation in the opponent's camp.
The other effects of compulsory voting are more difficult to assess and tend to divide political scientists. Some proponents, such as Galston at Brookings, argue mandating voting could help reduce political polarization because everyone would have to vote, and those who don't vote today tend to be less polarized than those who go to the polls (this would be a good thing given the extreme levels of polarization we are now experiencing). Alan Abramowitz presents evidence favoring this in The Disappearing Center: Those most engaged with the political process and most likely to vote are more polarized than those disconnected from politics.
Interestingly, political science literature has historically predicted more modest effects on election outcomes in the United States from compulsory voting than one might think. On the other hand, Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler argue that over the past several decades the differences between voters and nonvoters have grown significantly larger. Research by Andrew Fowler of Harvard shows compulsory voting in Australia increased the Parliament seat share of the Labor Party there by 7 percent to 9 percent, which is a big effect.
The truth is that we just don't know how much of an impact it would have.
Politicians don't seem to believe the dominant political science view suggesting mandatory voting would have little effect on elections, perhaps with good reason given some research suggesting a larger impact. Moving to compulsory voting would probably require a constitutional change and almost certainly would require the participation of both parties. It could be instituted only when it would not be of obvious benefit to one political party over another.
This brings us to the paradox of compulsory voting: It's a sensible idea that could be enacted only when it would have almost no effect. In that case, some might wonder, why do it? The answer is that increased participation would make our democracy work better, in the sense of being more reflective of the population at large. And it could allow the first president in history to be elected by a majority of American adults.
Peter Orszag is vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup Inc. and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.
© 2012 Bloomberg News