In Australia, voting is compulsory. Since 1924, Australians have been required by their government to show up at polling booths or face fines. Not showing up to the polls also means that your vote automatically goes to the minority party.
For advocates of this law (and there are about 20 countries who vote this way) it’s touted as a way to get more people out to vote. A higher percentage of people voting means government is theoretically more representative of the people. One of the other stated benefits of compulsory voting is that when citizens are required to vote, they are more likely to educate themselves about the issues.
I’d like to believe that Americans would be more inclined to educate themselves if faced with compulsory voting, but I wonder. I mean, it isn’t that people don’t have a lot of information. They listen to talk shows and watch Fox news and read all the emails that get sent their way. They really know a lot about the whereabouts of President Obama’s birth certificate, for instance. Being full of such knowledge, they join the Tea Party and carry photos of President Obama with Hitler moustaches while simultaneously calling him a Socialist.
An “educated” populace isn’t necessarily the same thing as an “informed” one. It depends on who’s doing the informing and what kind of information it is. These posters illustrate my point. The Nazi’s called themselves the National Socialist Party, but they were Fascists. Fascists are about as right-wing as you can get. So, if you want to call someone a socialist, the facial hair of choice should be a pointy beard like Lenin, right? Someone didn’t get a basic political science lecture somewhere along the line.
The most important thing that we voters need to know when choosing a legislator is “How effective will this person be at getting my favored legislation passed?” Being an effective legislator has nothing to do with what religion you are or who you’ve slept with. Educating one’s self about how a particular legislator voted is relatively easy – you look at the voting record. The harder part of being informed is understanding the real effect of legislation.
Our education system could be a source for that. Journalism could too. Unfortunately, both of these institutions have their flaws. Educators are constantly asked to do more with less. News organizations are in the business of selling information and it’s easier to do that when it’s sensational. A long list of how a particular legislator voted isn’t very exciting.
One other obstacle to citizen education is ourselves. Do we really want to be informed? Or do we really just want to hear the things that support what we already believe?
I’m not convinced that compulsory voting would result in better educated citizens, but I am convinced higher standards would. Higher education standards; journalists free to tell the story instead of sell ads and challenging ourselves to understand the real impact of that little blue line on the ballot.