Mandatory voting? Obama says it would be 'transformative'

BERKELEY, Calif. (KTVU) - President Obama raised the idea of mandatory voting at a speech before a Cleveland civic group Wednesday, prompting a cascade of news reports and comments as word spread online.

The President was addressing the issues of campaign finance reform and low voter turnout at the polls, which reached only 37 percent of eligible voters in the 2014 mid-term elections according to the United States Election Project.

"We shouldn't be making it harder to vote, we should be making it easier to vote," the President said, mentioning Australia which has mandatory voting.

"It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything," President Obama said.

Henry Brady of UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy says the idea has been around. "It's an idea that really gets at the question of ‘can we get more people involved in politics?'" Brady adds that typically, those who don't vote tend to be poor, young, less educated and from racial minority groups.

Worldwide, 22 countries have mandatory voting according to the CIA Factbook. Eleven countries, including Brazil, Belgium, Australia, and Singapore enforce those laws with a range of penalties from $20 fines to the revocation of passports.

In the U.S., opponents say Americans should have the right to not cast a vote, particularly if they don't like any of the candidates.

"I think mandatory anything is a bad idea. I'm not a big fan of being told what to do, but I like choices. I think if more people were given the chance to be responsible, we could encourage voting rather than saying you have to vote," said Joseph Tingin, a San Francisco resident who says he regularly votes but opposes mandatory voting.

"I'm kind of in favor of it," said Joseph Dimaio of Emeryville, "If it's mandatory then it's a pressure that's pressing down on everyone to make the time to go to the ballots."

Alameda County's Registrar Tim Dupuis said they had a 75 percent turnout for the last presidential election, but many people either didn't know or didn't bother showing up at Wednesday's state primary.

"Our turnout's running about 15 percent," said Dupuis.

He says, though, that they always have to prepare for full turnout.

"We have to staff for all of the polling locations assuming that we are going to have 100 percent turnout. And all of the voting materials and supplies are the same as though we have 100 percent turnout."

To implement mandatory voting in the United States, it would take a constitutional amendment.

So while it's good for dinnertime discussion, even the President admitted this is a battle politicians likely won't be putting on the table anytime soon.

"Realistically, given the requirements of that process, that would be a long-term proposition," President Obama said.