The paradox of voting, also called the Downs Paradox, states that for rational, self-interested individuals the costs of voting will usually exceed the benefits of voting. For many, the benefits of voting are nil. Local politics aside, it is a statistical impossibility for one vote to swing an election. For the politically inclined, the act of voting “is expressive rather than instrumental: a feeling that one has done one’s duty to society…and to one’s self” (Shklar, 26). Given that turnout rates for presidential elections over the last century around 60% and midterm elections average a turnout of roughly 40%, it follows that roughly 50% of possible voters either see the cost of voting as too high, the benefits of voting too small, or they simply lack the “duty” that Shklar references (Fairvote). Increasing voter turnout should be a moral imperative. If roughly 50% of the nation is not heard at the polls, then who, exactly, is the government serving? Sure, they serve a “majority” of the country, but if one-half of the country doesn’t show up then the government might not take the country’s actual interests into consideration. In order to resolve this paradox, and ensure that the government serves the people in its entirety, the United States federal government should enact compulsory voting.
Political legitimacy, the source of a government’s authority, in a democracy is inextricably linked to voter turnout. The history of suffrage in the United States illustrates this point very clearly. When only white, propertied men could vote, the government served their interests and their interests alone. No consideration was given to the plight of the working class for whom property was elusive, no consideration was given to the question of slavery until the moral imperative reached critical heights, and the issues uniquely facing women were not considered until women gained the right to vote. In order for the government’s legitimacy to be universal, suffrage must not only be universal, but everyone who can vote, must vote.
If compulsory voting is too far, perhaps a lighter alternative might be to make voting day a national holiday. Too many Americans can’t vote because of work, or child care responsibilities. Making voting day a national holiday provides the working class the opportunity to make their voices heard at the polls. The paradox of voting seems to be most true for the poor and ostracized. Ironically, these groups, in my opinion, deserve to be heard by the government the most. Compulsory voting, or at least a national holiday for voting, will ensure that their voices are heard.
Shklar, Jutith N. American Citizenship. Harvard University Press. Cambridge Massachusets. 1991.
Faitvote.org. Voter Turnout 1916-2014. http://www.fairvote.org/voter_turnout#voter_turnout_101