Voting Should Be Mandatory on America’s College Campuses

If historical trends hold, only about half of the young Americans eligible to vote in the upcoming presidential election will actually do so. Despite abundant media coverage about millennials fired up about their respective candidates, a poll this spring by the Harvard Institute of Politics showed that only 50 percent of 18 to 29 year olds were planning to “definitely” vote in the fall. That’s on par with the 49 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 who said the same in 2012 and the 45 percent who actually did. By contrast, 72 percent of seniors cast a ballot that year.

“Bernie Bros” aside, youth turnout at the polls is dismal in comparison to older voters. Seeking to help counter those trends, many colleges encourage their students to vote by offering campus polling sites, voter registration forms in dorm move-in packets, candidate forums, and so forth. While those efforts are all well and good, it’s also clear that they’re falling short. That’s why it might be time to try some sticks along with the carrots to boost youth turnout.

Specifically, colleges and universities should require their students to vote as a condition of their enrollment. Instead of just nudging students to vote, make them do it. Graduate them into voters like the schools mean it.

After all, if Yale University can establish carbon pricing on campus to curb carbon pollution, why not establish a voting duty for its students? If Liberty University can dictate hairstyles and require all students to attend “convocation” three times a week, why not require participation in elections?

A campus-based approach is obviously a modest — and importantly, non-legislative — twist on grander proposals to establish a national voting obligation by law – something that’s routinely dismissed as fantasy in America. In democracies around the world, however, mandatory voting is an ordinary obligation and fact of citizenship. It’s true that turnout rates vary across those countries; voting duty laws per se aren’t a sure bet for universal or even high turnout, especially where enforcement is nil or other barriers make it hard to comply. In Australia, for example, turnout rates exceed 90 percent partly thanks to conveniences like Saturday election days that make it easy to vote; if one is required to vote, it should be possible to vote. Still, a general observation holds: where laws require people to vote, voting rates are higher.

While a national voting mandate hasn’t been seriously tried in our country, Georgia, Virginia, North Dakota and Massachusetts have flirted with it in the distant past. More recently, in the modern era, the small Colorado town of Ridgway debated the idea and planned to put it on the local ballot as a nonbinding opinion question. Threats of litigation later scared off the town council from following through, but let’s say bolder cities move forward with the same policy today. What might happen?

Under an ingenious city-by-city roadmap pitched by Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, we’d get essentially a political arms race that could lead to a nationwide voting mandate. As one city after another passes laws that require voting in municipal elections, which would be timed to coincide with state and federal elections, nearby cities on the other side of the political spectrum would find it in their self-interest to follow suit. They would have to, unless they want to cede the newfound electoral windfalls to political competitors. The states and the federal government would eventually feel the political pressure to join in as well.

The campus-by-campus proposal reflects the same hyper-local strategy of decentralized, cascading victories. A key difference is that no new laws would be necessary for a private college or university to require its students to vote. That’s a crucial built-in advantage. The pioneering schools would still face many of the same legal and technical questions though, with an even murkier picture for public institutions that exist by the grace of their state governments.

First, would a college-imposed voting requirement be constitutional?

This question is why the type of entity establishing the rule matters. Constitutional protections generally constrain governmental entities, not private ones, albeit with complex exceptions. If Congress enacted a national voting mandate, detractors with money to burn would likely challenge the legislation in the courts on various grounds – most notably, the allegation that required voting is a form of compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment. They would assert the existence of a right not to vote, one that somehow overrides the public interest rationales in favor of universal turnout.

The constitutional validity of this forced speech claim is doubtful because Supreme Court jurisprudence views the function of the election process to be determining government leaders, not providing a means for personal self-expression. The complaint is further weakened by the existence of longstanding mandates to pay taxes, enroll in school as children, register for the draft, and meet all sorts of other governmental obligations — or else.

No one would be forced to select a candidate or position contrary to personal preferences either. A school’s self-imposed voting requirement for students would be viewpoint neutral, which also deflates worries about nonprofits engaging in partisan politicking. There wouldn’t be any, because across-the-board voting requirements are indifferent to which candidate, position, or party is chosen. Objectors could even choose nothing by leaving their secret ballot blank. (That’s why the “compulsory voting” label is arguably a misnomer, albeit one that reinforces social norms to vote. Insisting on a pervasive belief that opting-out is easy and widespread could defeat the policy’s aims.)

Besides, constitutional constraints on free speech generally don’t apply to private actors anyway. If push came to shove, the schools themselves could claim to be the object of First Amendment protections and defend their internal voter participation rules as “free speech.” (California would face more complicated questions as state law makes both public and private universities subject to the First Amendment.)

Second, would a college-imposed voting requirement be enforceable?

In practice, schools would need to experiment to find enforcement mechanisms that work and allow for reasonable abstentions, especially for people like international students who cannot vote for legal reasons. Possible methods include class registration or diploma holds, publication of rule-breakers’ names or standard disciplinary actions as with Honor Code violations.

Legally, it’s the involvement of money that would spark thornier issues — say, a financial penalty slipped into non-voters’ tuition bills. Some will howl that it’d constitute a “reverse poll tax,” implying that the label renders it illegal under the 24th Amendment. However, the constitutional ban on racist governmental poll taxes works to promote voter participation — a goal that obligatory voting rules imposed by private entities would work to ensure. Another possible complication is that separate federal and state laws prohibit payments or incentives for voting — raising the question whether the courts, if asked to intervene, would deem a monetary punishment for not voting to be legally equivalent to a monetary reward for voting. The reality is that definitive answers will have to wait for such matters to be litigated, if schools decide to go down this particular path on enforcement at all.

Finally, would college voting mandates solve low youth turnout?

No. That’s a complex problem without a single quick fix. It’s certainly not going to be the proposal that by definition misses non-college-goers, including the most impoverished young Americans who are shut out of both higher education and the democratic process. Sometimes that exclusion is deliberate, such as when some politicians create roadblocks and hassles just to keep the voters they dislike away from the polls. We need more ideas and strategies to bring these young citizens off the sidelines, too.

All the uncertainties aside, the benefits of actual participation by the full theoretical electorate — such as greater legitimacy and political responsiveness of elected representative government — would be well worth the trouble. And the campus-by-campus approach would take us closer to that ideal. Not only that, more than a few of the graduates of participating schools will become lawmakers, judges, government executives and activists after spending some of their most formative years experiencing voting as an accepted fact and duty of American citizenship.

So let our colleges and universities be the policy laboratories. Perhaps Liberty University should go first.

If the movement spreads, particularly to junior and community colleges, it’s not outlandish to envision it cascading into a voting obligation of some kind at the national level. If the ramifications of college students voting at dramatically higher rates scare some, the most defensible and cleanest counter-strategy would actually be universal turnout of all groups through a new national mandate – thus leveling the playing field.

As headlines in the coming months will warn, our democracy is currently ranking near the bottom among advanced nations in terms of voter participation. A new movement to require college students across the country to vote could be the catalyst that finally shakes up this status quo.

Katherine Oh

Katherine Oh is a policy consultant and writer based in Washington, D.C.