What if you were paid to vote—and fined if you didn’t?

Voting. It's important. But we don't exactly make it a priority, do we? Other democracies have outshone the United States when it comes to innovating ways to encourage democratic participation. Instead of giving voters a narrow window of time on a Tuesday, how about a voting week? Or paper ballots for all elections? What if citizens got paid to vote, and fined if they didn't? Dambisa Moyo explores these possibilities and more in this fascinating look at ways to fix our ailing democracy. Her book is Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth—and How to Fix It.

  • Transcript


Dambisa Moyo: My book, Edge of Chaos, offers ten proposals to improve democracy. Roughly six of them are targeting the politician. Four of them are targeting the voter.

It is critically important that people appreciate, as we go through these very challenging proposals, that all the proposals, all ten of them, have precedent somewhere in the world. So to put it more simply, every proposal that I offer in the book for consideration—not for wholesale consumption but for us to consider as we think about our unique democratic circumstances in whatever country we may be—All of these proposals do exist already somewhere around the world.

For instance, I offer the idea of mandatory voting.

There are about 27 countries today that have mandatory voting, including Australia, Belgium, Greece, and many countries in South America.

The idea is very simple. It’s essentially an endowed civic duty of every citizen to participate in the electoral process, and it’s critically important that people do participate.

And so what they do in Australia is that they find you—and actually in many countries I should say for where the mandatory voting is the case—you either get a monetary fine or you could be blocked from public services, such as you may not be able to get a job in the government if you do not vote and if you do not have proof that you vote.

Of course there are many other things we can think about.

Trying to enhance voter participation rates, especially to the extent that people are not voting because they’re too poor to leave, say, an hourly wage job to go and stand in line.

It could be the case that we might see more people vote on a weekend instead of on a Tuesday in November.

We might actually subsidize some of those workers in the day of the election so that they don’t feel like they’re losing income.

So some of these initiatives are already underway in other places, across Europe as an example. I do think that we should think about trying to enhance the participation of voters.

I mean frankly this idea of mandatory voting does fly in the face of the first amendment in the United States, which is the right to choose. But I do think that this is actually harming us, especially if we at stealth are essentially moving to an environment where fewer and fewer people vote and essentially then dictate, if albeit implicitly, dictate public policy.

So I do think we should be open to questions around mandatory voting, but nevertheless it is worth saying that I think that might be a hard pill to swallow for Americans who do believe in the first amendment.

One of the other proposals for voters is this idea of weighted voting. And it has already been misunderstood. My book has been reviewed a number of times, and it’s quite a pity that people are misconstruing and misunderstanding what it’s about. It is about allocating greater or less weight to people based on their engagement. This is not about ascribing higher weights to people based on any adjective such as race or gender or land ownership or IQ or education. It has absolutely nothing to do with that, just to be absolutely clear.

But there are, of course, contextual issues, because we would not want to return to an era of where certain groups are essentially disadvantaged or banished from voting because of their backgrounds or race or education.

I have to say as an immigrant, as somebody who’s immigrated to Europe but also to the United States, I am required to take a civics test.

Every immigrant regardless of background, economic standing, or education background is required to take a basic test to show that engagement.

And all I’m essentially proposing in the book is that we might want to consider that kind of thinking just so that we can imbue a sense of commitment from the average citizen. Of course there are places, in fact, Canada and Switzerland are looking at weighted voting.

You could see the idea of weighted voting perhaps getting much more aggressive if you think about a referendum.

In referenda it’s usually a very specific question that is on the ballot. And so, for example, you could argue, and some people have argued, that for a healthcare question frankly I don’t know whether the marginal dollar or the additional dollar that we spend in healthcare should go for x-rays or for beds or for nurse’s pay. I simply don’t know.

But maybe the people who work in that area might have a better understanding of what the best use of that additional dollar might be.

And so this idea that their vote should count more is something that is definitely flirted around the similarity with education as well. But this is very much around referenda. It’s not about general elections. And again I think there’s a bit of a schism in thinking there.

I will just point out that we already do have weighted voting in the United States.

If you are incarcerated you have a zero vote. There’s about two million Americans. But also – two million Americans who are in prison today, but that excludes people who are released and not allowed to vote.

But also in the democratic party, super delegates have a weight that weighs more than the average delegate.

So whether people are aware or not we do have these sort of themes of weighted voting already.

But hopefully that ultimately – what we want – what I think was the ultimate win for democratic processes to ensure we have as many people as possible voting, we want to make sure that people are also very understanding or certainly engaged as possible.

And I believe that having these types of proposals in place will address these particular goals in a very specific way.

It may be worth just adding one last point, which is that ultimately if we had mandatory civics classes or courses, let’s say at high school or even junior high, I think that would also really help, because there are many studies that now show upwards of one-third of American adults don’t even know the three key pillars of the democratic process—the executive, the legislature, as well as the judiciary.

And, to me, I think that ultimately it is our duty and onus to ensure that we have better participation and engagement of citizens, and part of that process is ensuring that they understand what voter rights are, how the process works, and how to vote, as well as participate in a meaningful way.