Where Texas excels: On compulsory voting and exercising the right not to vote

Good morning Austin:

Texas is a bad state. A very bad state.

Texas ought to be ashamed of itself.

The report earlier this month from Nonprofit VOTE, confirmed that once again in the 2014 midterm elections, Texas distinguished itself for its low voter turnout:

As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Nonprofit VOTE is pleased to release its biennial voter turnout report, America Goes to the Polls 2014, based on final data certified by state election offices. The report ranks voter turnout in all 50 states to look at major factors underlying voter participation in this historically low-turnout election.

While just 36.6% of eligible citizens voted, the lowest in a midterm since World War II, turnout varied widely across states by as much as 30 percentage points. Maine led the nation with 58.5% turnout among eligible voters, follow by Wisconsin at 56.8%, and Colorado at 54.5%. Nevada, Tennessee, New York, Texas and Indiana made up the bottom five all with less than 30% of their eligible voters participating.

AGTP2014_pg8 copy




What can be done?

From Brian Miller, executive director of Nonprofit VOTE:

When measured against voting eligible population, Texas has among the bottom five nationally in voter turnout. In fact, Texas is 50th in a 51 state (and DC) ranking with only 28.9% of eligible voters turning out. The top 5 states had between 53 and 58% of eligible voters turning out.

Almost any of the reforms we lift up in the report that are characteristic of high-turnout states would be a move in the right direction for Texas, including Election Day Registration, pre-registration of 16 and 17-year olds, and shortening the long 30-day preregistration requirement. We also happen to know from experience that Texas makes it particularly hard for local nonprofits, service providers, and civic organizations to do nonpartisan voter registration drives. Changing that would help. Finally, Texas would also benefit from more competitive elections. One way to promote that is by moving to nonpartisan redistricting.

But, within a few days of release of  Nonprofit VOTE’s report, President Obama offered a bolder idea.

From the Associated Press:

They say the only two things that are certain in life are death and taxes. President Barack Obama wants to add one more: voting.

Obama floated the idea of mandatory voting in the U.S. while speaking to a civic group in Cleveland on Wednesday. Asked about the corrosive influence of money in U.S. elections, Obama digressed into the related topic of voting rights and said the U.S. should be making it easier — not harder— for people to vote.

Just ask Australia, where citizens have no choice but to vote, the president said.

Oh no, Barack, Don’t go there. Compulsory voting? Australia?

Republicans would have a field day with this. Ted Cruz would call it Obamacare for voting. Fox, Breitbart and Rush would spin wild scenarios – Democrats open the borders, let in every non-Anglo in sight, offer a blanket amnesty, mandate and expedite citizenship, celebrate their permanent electoral lock  and rewrite the textbooks to declare Barack Obama the father of the New America.

I asked Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist and the co-founder of the new group Liberty Action Texas, his take on compulsory voting.

“I am happy to go on the record to say that the government should not be allowed to force you to vote,” he said. “What’s next, forcing Americans to vote for only the government-approved candidates? Sounds like a bad idea and antithetical to freedom, if you ask me.”

The mantra of Battleground Texas is that Texas is not a red state, Texas is a non-voting state. Make voting compulsory, and Texas turns blue. Right?

Here’s more from the AP report on Obama in Cleveland:

“If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country,” Obama said, calling it potentially transformative. Not only that, Obama said, but universal voting would “counteract money more than anything.”

Disproportionately, Americans who skip the polls on Election Day are younger, lower-income and more likely to be immigrants or minorities, Obama said. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls,” he said in a veiled reference to efforts in a number of Republican-led states to make it harder for people to vote.

Statistically speaking, Obama is correct. Less than 37 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2014 midterms, according to the United States Election Project. And a Pew Research Center study found that those avoiding the polls in 2014 tended to be younger, poorer, less educated and more racially diverse.

At least two dozen countries have some form of compulsory voting, including Belgium, Brazil and Argentina. In many systems, absconders must provide a valid excuse or face a fine, although a few countries have laws on the books that allow for potential imprisonment.

Fines for not voting? Imprisonment? Say it ain’t so, BHO.

And, indeed, the day after he floated the idea, it turned out that the president was just musing, just thinking out loud.

From the next day’s White House press briefing:

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I wanted to ask you about President Obama’s comments yesterday when he said it would be transformative if everyone voted, at the event in Cleveland.  And I know you referenced the —

 MR. EARNEST:  Kind of provocative, huh?  Yes.

 Q    Yes, it was provocative.  And he referenced Australia’s mandatory voting law.  So I wanted to know if the President believes that the United States should adopt such a mandatory voting law.

MR. EARNEST:  The President was not putting forward a specific policy proposal.  I think somebody had asked him a pretty open-ended question about campaign finance reform and about the state of elections in this country.  And I think the President gave a pretty open-ended answer about a variety of ways in which this challenge could be confronted.  He talked about a constitutional amendment that would relate to campaign finance, and then that from there he talked about some of the reform proposals that have been implemented in other countries.  The President was not making a specific policy prescription for the United States.

During a subsequent webinar on the Nonprofit VOTE report, Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, who maintains the United States Election Project, said he did not think there was any chance compulsory voting would come to pass in America – it rubs too strongly against the American grain.

From Brian Miller:

On the POTUS statement re: compulsory voting, it’s great to see the President thinking outside the box about solutions to the dismal voter turnout. It’s important that we start a real conversation about low voter turnout, what it means for our democracy, and some solutions that can revitalize voting and the health of our democracy. Compulsory voting, like is done in Australia and other nations, is unlikely to happy anytime soon in the US. Additionally, compulsory voting is easier to pull off when you have a multi-party system and a broad range of choices as Australia has. Either way, we’re a long way from such action in the US.

Still, the fact that President Obama would even broach the subject of compulsory voting struck me as odd, and it was something I was already primed to think about because of an encounter a few days earlier that I wrote in passing of in a previous First Reading.

I was at the launch of a new group, Liberty Action Texas, featuring Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who will be announcing for president next week. There, I remade the acquaintance of Michael Goldstein, who graduated from UT in August with a BS in computer science – and where he ran the Mises Circle, an economics reading group – and who now works full-time as a programmer. As I wrote of my encounter with Goldstein:

Michael Goldstein at the Liberty Action Texas launch where Rand Paul spoke.
Michael Goldstein at the Liberty Action Texas launch where Rand Paul spoke.

He had just run into Rand Paul downstairs at the high-rise where it was held, and said he had asked the senator, “Are you here for the Rand Paul event?” Paul replied that  he was, and laughed.

But – and here is the peril for Paul – libertarians can be a quirky lot. Even though he was attending the event and would seem to have, in Paul, a candidate of a similar libertarian bent, Goldstein said he probably wouldn’t vote, because the time required to adequately evaluate the field of candidates was too great to be logically worthwhile. And, he said, his quick interaction with Paul before the event, was probably more valuable than anything he might achieve with his vote.

My interest was piqued by this exchange, and, in light of the Nonprofit VOTE report and the president’s remarks on compulsory voting, I emailed Goldstein some questions. here is his reply:

My disincentive to participate in elections is mostly an economic one. To be a responsible voter requires a lot of time and energy, especially when there are multitudes of conflicting issues at stake. Think of how much time you would have to spend to have a thoughtful choice in every Federal, state, and municipal election you vote in. My guess is: most, if not all, of your time. Furthermore, the odds of any specific person’s vote changing the outcome of an election, as Gordon Tullock used to joke, is less than the odds of that person getting killed on his way to the voting booth.

 The costs of being a responsible voter, then, are massive amounts of time that could be spent more productively: spending time with family, learning new skills, helping your community, etc. And this assumes politicians are being honest. Calculating the odds of that is left as an exercise for the reader.

1. How do you decide if and when to vote?

I would vote if A) I had the domain-specific knowledge for a particular issue that would allow me to form a responsible and thoughtful opinion and B) if the odds of my vote affecting the outcome to even a small degree was possible. As a 23 year-old, it would be presumptuous to assume A was true, except perhaps on matters of Bitcoin or the latest Kendrick Lamar album (both are great, check ’em out). Being in Austin and thus living in a large city in a large state in a large country, B is pretty much out of the question.

2. Should registration and voting be made easier?

Registration and voting is already very easy, as far as I can tell. I am inundated with opportunities to register every time I am at the library or near the UT campus. I think I registered once, and it took all of 3 minutes. Early voting gives ample time to get to the booth. Rather, being able to avoid political activism and punditry should be made easier.

3. Do Americans have a right not to vote, and if they don’t vote, are they shirking a civic responsibility.

Americans absolutely have the right to abstain from voting. I can’t imagine the psychology, even laziness, of a person who believes dragging yourself to a voting booth every 1-4 years is the pinnacle of civic responsibility. I described how ineffective casting a vote is in effecting change in the community, so voting is perhaps the very least you could do to claim civic responsibility, if at all.

4. Is it an unhealthy sign that so many people don’t vote?

Nope. I hope they spend their time participating in real civic engagement, with a focus on family, community, and entrepreneurship. Technology like Uber solve transportation problems more effectively than Capital Metro, Khan Academy better than AISD, etc. An unhealthy sign would be people not looking for creative entrepreneurial solutions to personal, family, and community problems, and instead bothering friends and family with their political opinions, or checking the latest polls. A favorite article of mine: http://nakamotoinstitute.org/mempool/working-and-saving-are-revolutionary-acts/

The right to abstain from voting.

The right not to vote.

Think about that for a minute.

If Americans have a right not to vote – and I doubt there are very many Texans who think otherwise – then Texans (along with Hoosiers) surpass all other Americans in asserting that right not to vote, in exercising their right to not exercise their franchise.

If you look at politics through the lens of the right not to vote, it totally flips the script, turning all those charts that show Texas scraping the bottom on voting upside down and placing Texas at the pinnacle of charts on not voting.

We go from being number 50 to number 1.

On the philosophical underpinnings of the right not to vote, I turned to Jason Brennan, a philosopher at Georgetown University, where he is an assistant professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy and teaches courses in ethics, political economy, moral psychology, entrepreneurship, and public policy.

He is the author of among other books, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2012), The Ethics of Voting (Princeton University Press, 2011), with David Schmidtz, A Brief History of Liberty (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and Compulsory Voting: For and Against, with Lisa Hill (Cambridge University Press, 2014). She argues for compulsory voting, he argues against.

Compulsory Voting book cover

When President Obama, out of the blue, brought up compulsory voting, Brennan posted at Bleeding Heart Libertarians what he described as “a handy dandy  list of the main arguments I’ve encountered for compulsory voting. Alas, none are sound. Also, two arguments against compulsory voting, both of which are sound.”

Here it is:



The Turnout Argument

Compulsory voting produces high turnout.
If compulsory voting produces high turnout, then compulsory voting is justified.
Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.

The Consent Argument

Democracy should be based on the consent of the people.
Citizens show consent by voting.
Therefore, a democracy without high electoral turnout rules without consent.
Therefore, we should compel people to vote.

The Legitimacy Argument

Democratic governments are illegitimate unless there is high voter turnout.
Governments should be legitimate.
There will not be high turnout unless there is compulsory voting.
Therefore, democratic governments may impose compulsory voting.

The More Democratic Argument

It is more democratic if everyone votes than if only part the population votes.
We should do whatever is more democratic.
Therefore, we should force everyone to vote.


The Demographic Argument

Voters tend to vote for their self-interest.
Politicians tend to give large voting blocs what they ask for.
When voting is voluntary, the poor, minorities, the uneducated, and young people vote less than the rich, whites, the educated, or older people.
If so, then under voluntary voting, government will tend to promote the interest of the rich, of whites, and of the old, over the interests of the poor, of minorities, or of the young.
Under compulsory voting, almost every demographic and socio-economic group votes at equally high rates.
Thus, under compulsory voting, government will promote everyone’s interests.
Therefore, compulsory voting produces more representative government.
If compulsory voting produces more representative government than voluntary voting, then compulsory voting is justified.
Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.

The Trust and Solidarity Argument

It is good for citizens to trust their government and to feel solidarity with one another.
If there is high turnout, citizens will trust their government more and feel greater solidarity with one another.
If 1 and 2, then whatever increases trust and solidarity is justified.
Compulsory voting is necessary to ensure high turnout.
Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.

The Generic Consequentialist Argument

Compulsory voting would produce good consequence G.
If compulsory voting would produce good consequence G, then compulsory voting is justified.
Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.

The Duty to Vote Argument

Citizens have a moral duty to vote.
If citizens have a moral duty to do something, then government may force them to do it.
Therefore, government may force citizens to vote. (I.e., compulsory voting is justified.)

The Gratitude Argument

Citizens who fail to vote are ungrateful for their hard-won liberties. (Our troops died to protect those freedoms.)
People should be grateful.
Therefore, citizens should be compelled to vote.

The Autonomy Argument

It is valuable for each person to be autonomous and self-directed, and to live by rules of her own making.
In order for each person living in a shared political environment to be autonomous and self-directed, and to live by rules of her own making, she needs to have and exercise her right to vote.
Compulsory voting ensures everyone exercises her right to vote.
Therefore, compulsory voting enhances autonomy.
If compulsory voting enhances autonomy, then compulsory voting is justified.
Therefore compulsory voting is justified.

The Assurance Argument

Low turnout occurs because citizens lack assurance other similar citizens will vote.
Compulsory voting solves this assurance problem.
If 1 and 2, then compulsory voting is justified.
Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.

The Public Goods Argument

Good governance is a public good.
No one should free ride on the provision of such goods. Those who benefit from such goods should reciprocate.
Citizens who abstain from voting free ride on the provision of good governance.
Therefore, all citizens should vote.
If all citizens should vote, then government should compel them to vote.
Therefore, compulsory voting is justified.


The Burden of Proof Argument

Because compulsory voting is compulsory, it is presumed unjust in the absence of a compelling justification.
A large number of purported arguments for compulsory voting fail.
There are no remaining plausible arguments that we know of.
If 1-3, then, probably, compulsory voting is unjust.
Therefore, probably, compulsory voting is unjust.

The Worse Government Argument

The typical and median citizen who abstains (under voluntary voting) is more ignorant, misinformed, and irrational about politics than the typical and median citizen who votes.
Irrational about politics. Both the median and modal voter will be more ignorant, misinformed, and irrational about politics.
If so, in light of the influence voters have on policy, then compulsory voting will lead at least slightly more incompetent and lower quality government,
It is (at least presumptively) unjust to impose more incompetent and lower quality government.
Therefore, compulsory voting is (at least presumptively) unjust.

 Brennan wrote another post the same day,that is well worth reading in its entirety – The Demographic Argument for Compulsory Voting, with a Guest Appearance by the Real Reason the Left Advocates Compulsory Voting.

From that post:

Okay, let’s skip past the bull…, and look at the real reason lots of people on the Left advocate compulsory voting. They advocate compulsory voting because they think it will help left-wing parties gain seats. After all, at first glance, it sure seems like the people who choose not to vote are more likely to vote Democratic than they are to vote Republican. But, again, that’s wrong. There are ways of studying this, and it turns out that compulsory voting has few partisan effects.

For instance, political scientists Raymond Wolfinger and Benjamin Highton say,

 [There is a] widespread belief that “if everybody in this country voted, the Democrats would be in for the next 100 years.” …this conclusions…is accepted by almost everyone except a few empirical political scientists. Their analyses of survey data show that no objectively achieved increase in turnout—including compulsory voting—would be a boon to progressive causes or Democratic candidates. Simply put, voters’ prefers differ minimally from those of all citizens; outcomes would not change if everyone voted.
Wolfinger and Highton agree that compulsory voting would bring at best modest changes in electoral outcomes. And that’s just one study. Other studies find the same results. In her review of all the extant empirical work, Sarah Birch also finds that compulsory voting has little to no effect on partisan outcomes, except, perhaps, that it helps far right wing nationalist parties get a couple seats in proportional voting regimes.

So, to Democrats, I say, be careful what you wish for. If you force everyone to vote, you not only won’t help Democrats win, but you will change what Democrats want. An excerpt from my book:

The Ideological Elephant in the Room

Let’s be really frank here. There is unstated reason why many political theorists, political scientists, and philosophers are sympathetic to compulsory voting. Most of my American colleagues are Democrats. Many of them sensibly believe compulsory voting would help the Democratic Party. (Similar remarks apply to my colleagues outside the US with respect to their favored left-leaning parties.) As we saw in chapter 2, they are mistaken—the best available evidence indicates that compulsory voting has few partisan effects and does little to help left-leaning parties. However, suppose compulsory voting would in fact increase the power of the Democratic Party. If so, should that give my Democratic colleagues at least some reason to favor compulsion?

Perhaps not. Democrats are not united in their moral and political outlooks. High information Democrats have systematically different policy preferences from low information Democrats. Rich and poor Democrats have systematically different policy preferences. Compulsory voting gets more poor Democrats to the polls. But poor Democrats tend to be low information, while affluent Democrats tend to be high information voters. The poor more approved more strongly of invading Iraq in 2003. They more strongly favor the Patriot Act, of invasions of civil liberty, and torture, of protectionism, and of restricting abortion rights and access to birth control. They are less tolerant of homosexuals and more opposed to gay rights. In general, compared to the rich, the poor—including poor Democrats—are intolerant, economically innumerate, hawkish bigots. If compulsory voting were to help Democrats at all, it would probably help the bad Democrats. The Democrats would end up running and electing more intolerant, innumerate, hawkish candidates.

Here is the first of several YouTubes you can watch in which Lisa Hill, Brennan’s opposite number on the issue, talks about compulsory voting.

In another paper – Polluting the Polls: When Citizens Should Not Vote (Jason Brennan. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 87, No. 4 (2009): 535-550, p. 537.) – Brennan goes further, arguing that citizens not only have a right not to vote, but indeed, a kind of moral obligation not to vote rather than cast a bad, ill-informed vote.

The citizen of a Western democracy has a moral right to vote, founded on justice. Still, the right to vote does not imply the rightness of voting. Voters are not obligated to vote, but if they do vote, they ought to vote well. Most citizens would not vote well, and so for them, voting would be wrong. People tend to vote in what they perceive to be the national interest rather than their narrow self-interest. However, their perception of the national interest is often wrong, as it is grounded in ignorance and unreliable, irrational processes of belief formation. Their ideological bents reflect bias. Voters make systematic errors and these errors lead to to harmful policies. This paper argues that if a person forms her political beliefs in an unreliable or irresponsible way and lives in a society in which the majority of other citizens also form their beliefs in unreliable ways, she ought not vote. In societies in which most people are ignorant, irrational, or irresponsible about politics, ignorant, irrational, or irresponsible citizens ought to abstain from voting. Individual voters ought to abstain rather than vote badly.

This thesis may seem anti-democratic. Yet it is really a claim about voter responsibility and how voters do not seem to be meeting this responsibility. On my view, voters are not obligated to vote, but if they do vote, they owe it to others and themselves to be rational, unbiased, and well informed about their political beliefs, at least to a higher degree than they are. Similarly, most of us think we are not obligated to become parents, but if we are to be parents, we ought to be responsible, good parents. We are not obligated to become surgeons, but if we do become surgeons, we ought to be responsible, good surgeons. We are not obligated to drive, but if we do drive, we ought to be responsible drivers. The same goes for voting.

This drew a reply from Marcus Arvan, who is in the Department of Philosophy & Religion at the University of Tampa, in which he asks:

Are the costs of avoiding bad voting always (or even usually) less than or equal to the collective harms caused by bad voting? No. Consider one of Brennan’s own examples: citizens voting badly for a harmful economic policy that costs the economy 33 billion dollars the following year.

If we assume there to be 300 million citizens (roughly the number of citizens in the U.S. today), the collective harm averages out to a $200 cost per citizen. That is a significant harm. Yet what costs would an individual bad voter have to incur to avoid voting badly? Getting a university education in critical thinking, philosophy and economics costs far more than $200. So too, in many cases, does self-education.

Although self-education may not literally cost one more than $200 (education is possible for free via
the Internet or public library), the time, energy and other personal investments involved (e.g. neglecting family and leisure time) could surely be worth more than $200 to oneself.

But, beyond dollars and cents, in another piece on the ethics voting at The Art of Theory, Brennan compares voting to serving on a jury:

Imagine a jury is about to decide a murder case. The jury’s decision will be imposed involuntarily (through violence or threats of violence) upon a potentially innocent person. The decision is high stakes. The jury has a clear obligation to try the case competently. They should not decide the case selfishly, capriciously, irrationally, or from ignorance. They should take proper care, weigh the evidence carefully, overcome their biases, and decide the case from a concern for justice.

What’s true of juries is also true of the electorate. An electorate’s decision is imposed involuntarily upon the innocent. The decision is high stakes. The electorate should also take proper care.

As I was working on First Reading last night, one of my favorite movies, Wag the  Dog, was on. Released in 1997, it is a brilliant black comedy about how, on the eve of a presidential election, a covert team of Washington political consultants and show biz types (including Willie Nelson as songwriter-for-hire Johnny Dean) fake a war to divert attention from a sex scandal threatening to envelop the president.

At one point there is this small sequence in which a few of the conspirators talk about why they don’t vote.

Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman): “Would you vote for that person based on that commercial?”
Fad King (Denis Leary): “You know I don’t vote.”
Stanley Motts: “Why don’t you vote?”
Fad King: “The only time I voted was that one time when Major League Baseball started the fan’s voting thing and I voted for Boog Powell for first base and he didn’t get in and it just disappointed me. It stayed with me. It’s futile.”
Stanley Motts: “You’ve never voted for President?”
Fad King: “No. (Pause.) Do you vote?”
Stanley Motts: “No. I always vote for the Academy Awards. But I never win.”
Fad King: “Liz, do you vote?”
Liz Butsky (Andrea Martin): “No. I don’t like the rooms. Too claustrophobic. I can’t vote in small places.”

The good news, or I suppose the very bad news, about people not voting, is that, according to a paper last year by two leading political scientists – Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton University, and Benjamin Page, a professor of decision making at Northwestern University – it all doesn’t make much difference anyway.

From John Cassidy’s report in the New Yorker, under the headline, Is America an Oligarchy?

From the Dept. of Academics Confirming Something You Already Suspected comes a new study concluding that rich people and organizations representing business interests have a powerful grip on U.S. government policy. After examining differences in public opinion across income groups on a wide variety of issues, the political scientists Martin Gilens, of Princeton, and Benjamin Page, of Northwestern, found that the preferences of rich people had a much bigger impact on subsequent policy decisions than the views of middle-income and poor Americans. Indeed, the opinions of lower-income groups, and the interest groups that represent them, appear to have little or no independent impact on policy.

“Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts,” Gilens and Page write:

Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

That’s a big claim. In their conclusion, Gilens and Page go even further, asserting that “In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover … even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”


HONK!TX 2015.

This past weekend was Honk!Tx 2015, a three-day festival of community street bands.


It was terrific, and restorative. Here is a not great video I shot, but you catch the spirit.



Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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