Voting is mandatory in Australia, as it was in George Washington’s Virginia. Voting was a civic responsibility, like militia service, posse and jury duty. It is based on the idea that voters are citizens, participants in the government of their country, and have no business being either ignorant or apathetic. And the richer you were, the more such duties you had.
Getting rid of the fines for failure to vote (just like evading the draft, or shirking jury duty) was presented as easing a burden placed on poorer (in both senses) voters, and keep the more easily bribable away from the polls, but was (of course) also a means of encouraging the “lower sorts” to leave the running of things to “their betters.” As in “let those better informed do the voting, don’t trouble your little head about it.”
We are no longer required by law to get out with pick and shovel to help maintain the roads, nor to ride with the posse, nor serve in uniform, nor help put out fires, nor come to one another’s aide in emergencies, etc. The only obligations left to us as citizens are (1) serve on a jury if called; (2) pay our taxes; and now (3) buy ourselves health insurance: though even that last is set up as a tax on the uninsured, rather than an actual positive command, like a jury summons or a draft notice.
But these days, most Americans HATE the idea that they have ANY duties owed to their country, or any responsibilities as citizens, other than to leave one another alone. Military service is now a job, even a career, rather than a burden placed on citizens generally. And as for paying taxes, paying their “freedom dues” as I think they ought to be called, that’s only for the other guy. Voting remains a moral obligation to some, but as several comments here demonstrate, we don’t actually trust our fellow citizens enough to want all of them voting. Some ask “Why should we encourage the apathetic and ignorant to vote?” rather than asking “Why should we encourage our fellow citizens be apathetic and ignorant?”
We hate the very idea of duty, because all we really believe in is “looking out for number one” which is the antithesis of public duty. Oh, we may do things we think benefit the country, but only when we individually feel like it, and only on our own personal terms. And we label irresponsibility “freedom.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about WWI, with the centennial upon us. During WWI, the sons of the nobility in England flocked to the colors, and died in droves: the sons of the elite suffering the highest casualty rates of any social class. How many of the children of the 1% today place themselves in harm’s way for their country, I wonder. Has any child of a president served in combat since WWII? (The question is not rhetorical, I actually don’t know the answer.) I don’t want to idealize the past, buying your way out of military service has also a long history in America. Still, liberty and self-government once meant PARTICIPATING in the government of your community and nation.
There is a difference between being a citizen and being a subject, as some conservatives like to say. But the difference is NOT between meekly obeying the laws others make, versus standing up (perhaps gun in hand) to resist those laws. That’s only the difference between being a good subject and being a bad subject. (Though sometimes being a bad subject is a good thing to be, at least when the law in question is genuinely bad, and usually leaving out the gun!) The difference between a citizen and a subject is between one participating in, and thus owning and respecting, the process of government and the laws, … and one who does not. Voting is only one part of that.
My old friend Henry was never a good citizen, by this measure, but was rather a bad subject merely. As I said, however, being a bad subject has its value too. And I still like what he said in 1854 about voting: “The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls … it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.”