Democratic proposal for compulsory voting is ‘un-American,’ senators say

Unprecedented in U.S., bill would require Washington residents to cast ballots in every major election, end right not to vote

OLYMPIA – A proposal from Democratic lawmakers that would require Washington residents to vote in every major election is an assault on freedom of speech and a fundamental American principle, the right not to vote, Republican senators say.

The proposal, unprecedented in the United States, would require Washington residents to cast ballots in every primary and general election. People who do not wish to vote would be required to seek a waiver from state government. Senate Bill 5209 is sponsored by 14 Senate Democrats, including six members of the Senate Democratic Caucus leadership team. The measure received its first hearing in the Senate State Government and Elections Committee Tuesday.

Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, the ranking Republican on the committee, noted that turnout in last November’s general election was about 64 percent, meaning that the proposal would have turned 36 percent of Washington’s registered voters into lawbreakers. “I’m not sure what’s scarier – taking away the right not to vote, or that so many of my colleagues in the state Senate think this is a good idea,” Wilson said. “I’m not sure they get it. In this country we cherish the right to vote, but we also cherish the right to say ‘no, thank you.’”

Compulsory voting has become a cause for many on the political left, who argue that if government forces people to participate in elections, the people will be more likely to support government. A voting requirement is on the books in 18 countries, including North Korea, where election results are typically unanimous, and mandatory voting is used as a census-taking tool to determine the identity of defectors. Among western democracies, the most notable is Australia, where eligible voters face fines when they fail to cast ballots, and can count on visits from government officials inquiring about their lack of diligence. Another 16 countries have eliminated compulsory voting requirements.

In this country, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in a 1977 case has long been thought to prohibit government from “compelled speech,” including neutral requirements that don’t tell people what to say, yet require them to say anything at all. In Wooley v. Maynard, the court upheld a motorist’s right to place masking tape over the motto imprinted on every New Hampshire license plate, “Live Free or Die.” In its ruling the court declared unequivocally that the First Amendment protects “both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all.”

Among those who testified for the bill before the committee Tuesday was Miles Rapoport, former Connecticut Secretary of State and co-author of “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting.” His 2022 book notes merely that the Supreme Court ruling applies to New Hampshire license plates, and asserts that a neutral requirement like compulsory voting would be permissible under the First Amendment. It also says advocates believe Washington state is one of several where state constitutions might allow government to impose compulsory voting on the populace.

Wilson was joined Tuesday in denouncing the proposal by fellow members of the Senate Freedom Caucus, a group of senators concerned with individual liberties and preservation of rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

“There is something fundamentally un-American about forcing someone to vote against their will,” said Sen. Jim McCune, R-Graham. “The First Amendment rights to free speech and free association mean no one should be compelled to make a political statement of support or associate with a candidate. Sometimes, withholding your vote can be a statement about your displeasure with all of the candidates or the system as a whole. While we, as lawmakers, should encourage everyone to participate in the system, we shouldn’t be trying to force them.”

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said, “Compulsory voting is a bad idea. Just as freedom of speech also means the freedom to not speak, our right to vote also means the freedom to not vote, if that is how someone chooses. This bill goes against our rights, our liberties and the freedoms that Americans hold dear. If this bill becomes law, it will take us a step toward authoritarianism. We don’t want to be like North Korea, where every adult is forced to vote – or else.”

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, said, “It’s too bad the proponents of this bill couldn’t have had Kim Jong-un in committee to testify in support, but I’m sure the people of North Korea would vote 100 percent in favor.”


Note — Tuesday’s hearing on the issue can be seen on TVW, Washington state’s public affairs TV network, at the following link: