Is Universal Voting an Idea Whose Time is Coming?

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Is Universal Voting an Idea Whose Time is Coming?
By: Miles Rapoport, Executive Director, 100% Democracy: An Initiative for Universal Voting

On May 24, Philanthropy New York, along with Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, sponsored a discussion on a startlingly new idea: universal voting in the United States. The occasion for the event was the publication, by The New Press, of the book 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting, which I wrote with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. The book lays out the benefits to our democratic system that would accrue from making voting a required civic duty for every American citizen.

After the 2020 election, the issue of how (and even whether) American democracy would survive rose to the top of many Americans’ concerns. It seems as though we’ve been locked in a kind of perpetual trench warfare about whether we move forward toward a fully inclusive democracy, or backward toward one that makes voting more difficult and less secure. Even with critical issues on the ballot this year, the eligible voter participation rate is hovering around only 47%. Now that the 2022 midterms are safely behind us, and our democracy–while fragile–is still standing, the case for universal voting is stronger than ever.

While universal voting has not been part of the American public debate, it is by no means a radical or untested concept. Universal voting is used in some 26 democratic countries.  Belgium was the first adopter in 1892, and Australia adopted it in 1924, providing 100 years of proof of concept.

During the Q&A at the Carnegie Corporation event in May, an audience member asked if there is any realistic chance for universal voting to be adopted in the U.S. Heather McGhee, who wrote the foreword to 100% Democracy, said that although big ideas can be introduced in a book, the key is following up, organizing, and making the case in a sustained way. In order to continue making that case and building on the enthusiasm generated by the book, we launched 100% Democracy: An Initiative for Universal Voting, a new, nonpartisan nonprofit that will work with organizations in the democracy and voting rights space to move the idea of universal voting into both the public debate and the legislative realm. We will focus our initial efforts on states and municipalities, in their roles as “laboratories of democracy.”

If the U.S. were to adopt universal voting, the participation rate in elections would automatically increase, and the composition of the electorate would more accurately reflect the diversity of our population. Today the makeup of voters is deeply skewed and far less representative of young people, voters of color, and lower-income voters. The voices of these voters would automatically be amplified.

Political campaigns would also be forced to change. Under universal voting, the current strategy of speaking exclusively to your own base (what I’ve come to call “enrage to engage”) would be counterproductive. If everyone is going to vote, then everyone is listening, and campaigns and parties will have to speak to everyone. Persuasion, rather than frenetic Get Out the Vote efforts, would become the norm.

How does the system work? In Australia, every citizen is required to participate, and 97% of Australians are currently on the voter rolls. Voters are not required to vote for or against a candidate—they can write a comment or leave the ballot blank—but they must ‘show up.’ If an enrolled voter does not participate and does not give a reason in response to a post-election letter, a light-touch fine, equivalent to about $15 US, is assessed. As a result, Australia has had a 90% turnout in every federal election since the enactment of universal voting. It has a strong and celebratory civic culture, including a tradition of ‘democracy sausages’ sold at booths outside every voting location. The system is supported by all parties, and there has been no meaningful effort to repeal it.

If 90% turnout became the norm in the U.S., it would have a number of positive effects. It would strongly encourage better and properly funded election administration to accommodate the higher turnout. Workers would be more likely to get time off to vote. Teaching civic education in schools would be a higher priority. And civil society organizations would make voter education a higher priority as well.

I am grateful to Philanthropy New York, Geri Mannion of Carnegie Corporation, and Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for hosting a forum in which E.J. Dionne, Heather McGhee, and I could present the argument for universal voting to a distinguished group of funders. Speaking at the event, Heintz referenced the inclusion of universal voting in Our Common Purpose, a report produced by a commission of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which he co-chaired. He said that while there are many defensive fights and short-term campaigns that need support in a moment where democracy is threatened, philanthropy also needs to “think about tomorrow.”

Miles Rapoport is Executive Director of 100% Democracy: An Initiative for Universal Voting, and co-author, with E.J. Dionne, of the book 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting. Rapoport is also Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School, and former Secretary of the State of Connecticut.

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