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A Radical Proposal to Narrow the "Turnout Gap": Make Voting Compulsory

It's hardly news that younger people are much less likely to go to the polls than older people.

Just 48.5 percent of all 18- to 24-year-old Americans voted in the 2008 presidential election, for example, compared with 72.6 percent of those 65 and older. That's a "turnout gap" of more than 24 percent.

It's much the same in many other countries, including England. According to the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, just 44 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in England voted in 2010, compared with 76 percent of those 65 and older. And Guy Lodge, an associate director of IPPR, points out that younger people who don't go to the polls are less likely than those in previous generations to develop the habit of voting as they move into middle age.

What to do?

Lodge has a radical proposal: Force young people to go to the polls.

IPPR research shows, Lodge says, that the best way to boost political participation among "hard-to-reach" groups is to make voting compulsory. He goes on to point out that about a fourth of the world's democracies, including Australia and Belgium, require their voting-age citizens to participate in elections. So why not, he asks, add "a small measure of compulsion to our electoral process"?

Acknowledging the potential for controversy, Lodge would only target citizens the first time they are eligible to vote. "These young voters would be compelled only to turn out," he writes, "and would be provided with a 'none of the above' option."

Similar plans have been advanced here in the United States. William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution - which, as think tanks go, is roughly the U.S. counterpart of England's IPPR - recently laid out some of the potential advantages in The New York Times:

Campaigns could devote far less money to costly, labor-intensive get-out-the-vote efforts. Media gurus wouldn't have the same incentive to drive down turnout with negative advertising. Candidates would know that they must do more than mobilize their bases with red-meat rhetoric on hot-button issues.

As for me, I might favor more of the carrot-and-stick approach, but without the stick. Maybe something along the lines of a free iPad for all new voters . . . -Bill Hogan

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