Political choices are, by nature, amongst the most subjective choices around, and anyone suggesting that compelling people to vote could prevent bad choices from being made must be ready to face a counter-assertion. Britain’s departure from the EU, however, is a recent example of a political decision that, as the months go on, appears increasingly and unequivocally to have been a bad one.
The fallout from the referendum has been cross-party political meltdown, a currency crash, and a shock loss of market confidence that will most likely see the mass exodus of UK businesses to the mainland. It’s not surprising then that a bizarre situation, confirmed by several polls, is now unfolding. There are now more people who would prefer that the UK remains in Europe than leaves, meaning that if the referendum were to be held again today the remain side would win. Crucial in swinging the vote would be the youth vote – deemed most likely to vote remain, not least because of the more tangible benefits they had from membership of the EU: freedom of movement and work around the Eurozone being one of them.
Perhaps even more staggeringly (and painting a sorry picture of the level of political education in the UK), according to a British Election Study most people who voted leave in June’s EU referendum thought that the UK wouldn’t actually leave and that there’s was just a protest vote. This possibly unprecedented level of political suicide amongst the electorate has already seen a hot of negative results. Further still, the powers that be have spoken and there is to be no second referendum. This can only be hypothetical, of course: but if mandatory voting had been in effect it’s highly probable that swing voters would have cast their ballot and made the crucial difference, saving the country potentially years of future pain.
Mandatory voting, for all of the negative attention it generates, is actually a misnomer. With the existence of the secret ballot, nobody can be forced to vote for someone they dislike. They can, however, be forced to participate in an exercise that gives validity to the political system under which we live. If this is too strong an infringement on the civil rights of a citizen, perhaps they should consider their right to consider themselves as such.
Without any legal or financial incentives to register and vote, people can easily justify their abstention as disillusion. In reality, it may be nothing more than a mask for their lack of political education or their laziness. We’re all too familiar with people who proudly proclaim that they’re ‘not involved in politics’, but mandatory voting – in forcing people to address themselves to and educate themselves in politics in at least the most rudimentary of ways – would make these words as redundant as the political ghosts to which they belong.
In more practical terms it would go a long way towards bridging social divides amongst racial, gender and economically disparate groups and towards reinvigorating a democratic system that represents the issues that the majority of people actually care about. And it could easily happen; all it would take is for one city to start the ball rolling and within years we could have a reenergized democracy, a reenergized civic identity and a reenergized society.
President Obama thinks that forcing us to vote might be a good idea. That he could favor punishing people for not voting—which means taking their money by force and imprisoning them if they resist—is unsurprising. The essence of government is violence—aggressive, not defensive, force. Government is not usually described in such unrefined terms, but consider its most basic power: taxation. If you can’t refuse the tax collector with impunity, you are a victim of robbery. It doesn’t matter that government claims to render "services" if you don’t want them.
Most of us learn young that violence is wrong except in defense of self or other innocent life. To those who say society without government would be problematic, I reply that most of us also learn that even a good end cannot justify a bad means. Besides, most of the ills that government "protects" us from—such as economic distress and terrorism—result from its own policies.
Aside from the violence inherent in the system, mandatory voting has conceptual problems. Enthusiasts of modern government often say that voting is a right—the most sacred right in some people’s eyes. [More sacred than the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?] It’s also said to be a duty. Can it be both?
Having a right means you may freely decide to take—or not take—an action without forcible interference by anyone else, including people in the government. Your right to the car you bought signifies that you are free to use it peacefully, or not use it at all. It makes no sense to say that your right to your car obligates you to use it or face punishment. Anyone who talks that way simply does not understand what a right is. A right, then, differs from an enforceable duty.
The story is the same with voting. If one has a right to vote, the idea of making the exercise of that right mandatory is absurd. No matter how many good consequences Obama dubiously foresees from compulsory voting, they can’t change the fact that forcing people to exercise a right makes no sense. It’s a sad commentary that he is not ridiculed widely for his suggestion.
If voting is a right, it can’t be a duty, and if it’s a duty, it can’t a right. Perhaps it’s neither.
I’ve assumed people have a right to vote, but let’s not be too hasty. It’s an odd right, indeed, because it entails participation in the process by which government officials are chosen. But as we’ve already established, government’s essence is aggressive violence. Can you have a right to participate in what would be condemned as a criminal operation if it were run “privately”? Can you have a right to help determine who will govern others against their will?
If for the sake of argument we concede the right to participate in the political system, shouldn’t we have to acknowledge the corollary right not to participate? I don’t mean just the right not to vote, but the right to opt out of government altogether—voting, taxation, war, regulation. Yet government does not let us theoretically free people opt out of individual programs (try opting out of the Mideast wars or Social Security), much less across the board.
In other words, no matter how often we’re told that the government exists by the consent of the governed, it really does not. Were you asked to consent? Please don’t say that remaining in the country counts as consent, for that would assume what is here disputed: that before any specific consent, the government has legitimate jurisdiction over the territory known as the United States of America. In fact, consent is merely presumed, and nothing you can do will ever be taken by the government as legitimate withholding of consent. Yet if that is true, then nothing you can do could logically constitute consent either. To repeat: if nonconsent is impossible, so is consent.
Individual freedom in moral communities requires not an impotent “right” to cast one vote among multitudes, but the right to ignore the state and live peacefully.