Should You Be Fined for Not Voting?

State Sen. Anthony Williams plans to introduce legislation to make voting mandatory. But do such measures actually work?

Photo Credit: AP/Matt Rourke

Photo Credit: AP/Matt Rourke

State Sen. Anthony Williams is planning to introduce legislation to require all registered voters in Pennsylvania to go to the polls in general elections.

Williams, who is running for mayor of Philadelphia in the May 19th Democratic primary, was inspired by favorable comments recently made by President Barack Obama about mandatory voting, his staff said.

“Voting is one of democracy’s most fundamental rights and duties,” said Williams in a March 23rd memorandum to senators asking them to co-sponsor his proposal. “This bill would emphasize the duty to vote by making it compulsory.”

In the letter to lawmakers, he also said the country of Australia issues a small fine if residents fail to cast a ballot.

“Under my legislation, all fines collected would go to funding public education to provide for a well-informed citizenry,” he said.

However, this week Williams said he is not dead-set on including a fine in his legislation. Another possibility, his staff said, would be to make voting mandatory in Pennsylvania, but not put any enforcement mechanisms in place.

“Penalties for not participating in the voting process have been effective in other countries, but no one is writing it in stone here,” Williams said in a statement. “Crafting legislation is a process and we’re at the beginning of it, not the end.”

Williams said he intends for his bill to primarily be a “tool to prompt discussion about the best ways to encourage more people to vote.”

So how effective is mandatory voting, really?

Australia made it the law of the land in 1924. Since then, voter turnout in federal elections has not dropped below 90 percent, according to a 2006 report by the Australian Electoral Commission. However, critics point out that the country’s turnout figures typically only count registered voters.

It is generally assumed that liberals would benefit most from mandatory voting because many people who don’t go to the polls are part of demographic groups that traditionally back the Democratic Party. But the Australian Electoral Commission found that, “On balance, there is no empirical evidence that a move to voluntary voting would advantage one major party over another.”

Williams’ proposal would likely be a tough sell in the Republican-controlled General Assembly regardless. Conservatives typically argue that citizens should be left to decide if they want to vote or even register to vote.

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