We live in a world in which 22 countries currently have mandatory voting laws, which is to say that you either vote or face a penalty. Most of the countries, including Egypt, the Congo, and Greece, are hardly countries whose public policy I would hardly want to emulate. (As a side note, the participation rate between countries with such laws and without is not as big as one would think) A right to vote has an implicit right to not vote. If you changed "right to vote" to "freedom of religion," and mandated that everyone have a religion, wouldn't that create issues, especially in a free society that bases its more on lower-case-"d" democratic values? If soldiers fought for our freedoms, then imbedded within that is the right to choose whether to vote or not. A true sense of civic participation is based on voluntarism, not conscription. This is equally valid when we consider that some might abstain from voting not simply out of apathy, but because work, health, or the costs of traveling to the polling booth might legitimately get in the way.
But let's sidestep the philosophical issues of mandatory voting for a second. Is it a good idea for better governance? I would have to contend in the negative. One of the main issues is that of voter ignorance. Political scientists have found that those who do not vote are more likely to be ignorant of the most basic facts about politics, such as the name of the current president, vice president, or Congressman. It's not just an issue of who the players are or what they have accomplished (or in many cases, not accomplished). It's about people who don't have a basic grasp of economics, sociology, or public policy to even make informed decisions. How does their forced input, along with the donkey votes, random votes, protest votes, and abstentions, improve the political system? And do we really think that mandatory voting is going to get voters to become more informed, especially since the statistical likelihood of their vote actually making a difference is next to nil?
This brings me to an alternative theory about the impact of mandatory voting. In spite of what impact that mandatory voting could theoretically have on the influence of money in elections (although I would argue the contrary since political campaigning is more important in terms of easily swaying the ignorant since they are now forced to vote), there is a more-than-distinct possibility that mandatory voting would do very little to nothing to change the outcome in the aggregate. By simulating mandatory voting scenarios, political scientists like John Sides have found that very the outcome of very few elections would actually be changed. If this theory about mandatory voting is true and it would do essentially nothing to change outcomes or even mitigate that vote ignorance I had mentioned earlier, then why take on the enforcement costs, administrative costs, or the social cost of creating a less free society?
Mandatory voting is bad policy, an insult to voters, and an idea that goes against the ideas of freedom and liberty upon which this country was founded. Low political turnout is representative of the political will in this country. If you want people to be more engaged in the political process, civic education and voter registration modernization, along with government transparency and accountability would go a long way in making the populace less cynical about the political process. I am glad that Obama's idea was merely a hypothetical and not one that he would actualize with executive order.