Washington state Democrats are proposing a mandatory vote

The Washington state legislature is considering a new mandatory voting proposal, SB 5209, which would force registered voters to return ballots in every primary and general election. The proposal is “about behavior modification,” Sen. Patty Kuderer (D–Bellevue) argued at a committee meeting Tuesday, comparing the government’s role in promoting voting to that of parents.

Thankfully, the law states that voters can return blank ballots and allows citizens not to register to vote at all. It does not establish a penalty for non-compliance.

As written, SB 5209 is essentially unenforceable. This is still bad policy because it would use the authority of the state, however weakly, to compel political speech.

Lead sponsor of SB 5209, Sen. Sam Hunt (D–Olympia), story Reason his bill would not violate citizens’ right to freedom of speech. “Voters have the option to opt out by filling out a form,” says Hunt. “They also have the option of sending in a blank ballot to fulfill their civic duty to vote. Nothing in the bill requires them to vote for a candidate. They are required to participate.”

“Even with its contradictory language and lack of penalties, SB 5209 is unconstitutional,” said Andy Craig, director of election policy at the Rainey Center and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.. “Under the First Amendment, you can’t force people to vote, just like you can’t force people to say the Pledge of Allegiance,” he adds. “There is a long tradition of Americans abstaining from voting for religious, philosophical or political reasons, which is their right.”

Washington Republican lawmakers reportedly resist bill, in part because of the high probability that it won’t hold up in court.

Some politicians can grace mandatory voting to fix low voter turnout—such as California’s staggering 42.2 percent in that state’s November 2014 general election—often driven by embarrassingly bad candidates. They may also assume that higher voter turnout will benefit their party, even though there is “substantial, reliable data showing that turnout, in the range seen in the United States over the past 70 years, has little or no systematic partisan effect,” academics Daron R. Shaw and John R. Petrocik wrote in National affairs.

Except for dissidents who don’t have the right to vote, many Americans are politically ignorant by choice. Proposals like SB 5209 would likely encourage voter participation, but not necessarily research or consideration before voting. “When relatively ignorant voters go to the polls, they do the rest of society a disservice,” George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin wrote on Volokhov’s conspiracywhose host it is Reason. “Instead, they harm us by making bad decisions and encouraging politicians to pander to their ignorance.”

The First and 14th Amendments state that governments may not compel or prohibit political speech. Decades of case law have strengthened this protection. Washington state lawmakers should understand that soft coercion, with few consequences, is coercion.

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