Let's fine people who don't vote

In the wee small hours of the morning after Election Day last November, I had a thought.



On paper it sounds simple enough. Officials would check the voter log against the social security database, and anyone that didn't sign their name would receive an orange envelope in the mail with a bill.

But it's never that black-and-white when it comes to government matters.

First and foremost, my math is skewed. It's far too simplistic, and frankly, incorrect. It would actually take over 1,000 years to close that gap without the debt growing, if the voter turnout rate stayed consistent the whole time, and our country (or humanity in general) was still intact.

Second, the task of trying to convince lawmakers and citizens that compulsory voting should be instituted for the benefit of everyone. It's a tough, uphill slog that fell short in New York State this past March.

As stated in the article, the bill was modeled after an Australian law mandating all citizens that are old enough to vote must do so, or they'd be hit with a fine. It's been in place at the federal level there since 1924. The government's website lists several reasons why compulsory voting is good:
  • Voting is a civic duty comparable to other duties citizens perform e.g. taxation, compulsory education, jury duty
  • Parliament reflects more accurately the "will of the electorate"
  • Candidates can concentrate their campaigning energies on issues rather than encouraging voters to attend the poll
But, not to show favor, they also list some reasons against the idea:
  • It is undemocratic to force people to vote – an infringement of liberty
  • It increases the number of safe, single-member electorates – political parties then concentrate on the more marginal electorates
  • Resources must be allocated to determine whether those who failed to vote have "valid and sufficient" reasons.
We can argue all day about whether or not mandatory voting is an unjust idea or a worthwhile one. But putting it in the same category as responsibilities like paying taxes – a mandatory facet of citizenship – seems well-founded and fairly agreeable.

Approximately 58 percent of eligible voters went to the polls on Election Night in 2016. During years in which a presidential election is being held, the numbers are always higher than they are in off-years. In 2015, only 37 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots.

The national debt in the United States currently hovers around $20.2 trillion, an absurd amount of money in any sense. The current population of the country is over 325 million people, and estimates from the Census Bureau say roughly 250.3 million Americans are over the age of 18, meaning they're old enough to vote.

According to that crude and informal math, if this proposition was in place for the election next month, and the fine on non-voters was as low as $20 per person, the federal government would stand to make up to $2.1 billion if 42 percent (105 million) of them failed to vote.

Of course, there would be appeals by citizens who didn't vote for one reason or another. Incapacitated, incarcerated, whatever the case may be. Creating an appeal system for the fines would be an onerous undertaking, but not an impossible one. A simple mail-in response would work, or districts could set up appeal days in court similar to how traffic tickets are dealt with so a judge could hear a citizen's argument and rule in favor or against their plea.

Even if 40 percent of those appeals were granted, the federal government could still bring in $841 million on one Election Day by imposing the $20 fines.

So let's get back to the initial amount of the fine. While Australia's fine is roughly equivalent to $15 USD, it doesn't specify how much money goes to the federal government versus state or local governments. So here's my suggestion. Implement a flat $100 fine that each non-voting citizen would have to pay. Out of the $100...

...$50 would go to local government, with $25 for their county and $25 specifically the municipality the non-voter is registered in. The extra money could be used to increase wages for police officers and firefighters, as well as to fund public schools, which could even help lower property tax rates. I personally believe it's most important that the smallest form of governments with the most limited sources of taxation should benefit most from these fines. Additionally, various local elections are always held annually and take up the most rows on the ballot, meaning local governments have the most to gain/lose on any given election day.

Approximate net: $3.2 billion to $5.3 billion

...$30 would go to state government. While it's a long shot, odds are states like New York that levy sales taxes on goods could be persuaded to lower or eliminate them completely in lieu of these fines. More realistically, the money could be used to aid correctional facilities or funnel money to state school systems to alleviate the cost of attendance and allow more students to be given financial aid or scholarships.

Approximate net: $1.9 billion to $3.2 billion

...$20 would go to the federal government. Ideally the new money could be used to replenish social security, healthcare, welfare, national parks, and other socially-conscious programs, but the odds of those being the primary beneficiaries thanks to the fines are probably smaller than I'd care to hear. Still, it's a huge chunk of change that could be put to good use in a plethora of ways.

Approximate net: $1.3 billion to $2.1 billion

These estimates are based on the same voter turnout rates as the 2016 election, with the ranges accounting for 60 percent of the hypothetical fines being enforced to 100 percent.

It's a very generous rate, but much more realistic and accurate than what I tweeted on November 9, 2016. Imagine the good that could come from this extra money finding its way to the government only to be given back to the people. Schools would improve, hospitals could fund better research, the arts would be rejuvenated. It's a tad idealistic, but that was my whole point.

Should something like this actually be implemented, one would expect voter turnout rates to improve and the subsequent amount of fines to be reduced. But if 90 percent of eligible voters turned out for Election Day 2020, and the remaining 10 percent all paid their $100 fine, more than $2.5 billion dollars would be divided among each of the appropriate government bodies.

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