Voting in Manchester in 2022. Mark Mirko / CT Public

A band of six lawmakers and a former secretary of the state are pitching a wild idea: Connecticut residents should be required to vote.

And I’m not so sure they’re entirely wrong.

Sightlines by Mercy A. Quaye

Caught somewhere between this is a “horrible, very bad, no good idea” and “wait, there might be something to this,” examples from around the globe offer some promising insight into what’s possible and what’s not when it comes to mandatory voting.

Australia adopted compulsory voting nearly 100 years ago — long enough ago that the expectation to vote is embedded in the culture. As a result, more than 96% of eligible Australians are registered to vote, which produces a 90% turnout for federal elections — a number that dwarfs America’s average, 55% turnout rate.

While the Australian model produces results, it also fines non-voters up to $80 Australian dollars for missing election day. This consequence is a non-starter for me.

Representatives from ACLU-Connecticut agree.

“This bill raises the specter of fining people for not voting, which would be deeply problematic and exacerbate inequality,” ACLU-CT’s public policy and advocacy director Claudine Constant said in a written statement. “A fine is something many people in our state could not pay, and it could end up being further criminalization of poverty, as failure to pay a fine in Connecticut’s legal system can escalate into jail time. The bill’s proposal to allow the government itself to define a “valid reason” for not voting also means the government would get to pick its own voters, a system that could be rife with abuse.”

Herein lies a huge equity problem.

For the ACLU, the people least able to get to the polls, including many low-income residents who have the most serious barriers to voting — such as a lack of transportation, childcare or time off from work — are the ones who would be most adversely impacted by the requirement.

State Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, says this is the part of the bill that would have to be intentionally and strategically written to avoid such inequities.

“The idea is to have a small and constant nudge by the state for you to participate in this civic duty. The idea is to nudge people that this is important to democracy,” he said, adding that the state should issue a nominal fee of about 50 cents that would accrue by the same amount each year and would not escalate to a criminal penalty.

It’s easy to compare this to ticketing and towing practices around the state where you get a $20 fine for parking illegally. That ticket doubles in two weeks, and quadruples in four.

Eventually, if you don’t pay the fine, you risk having your car towed, which can lead to financial ruin for some.

This is similar to tickets for moving violations. During the pandemic, I found myself with a suspended license as the result of a traffic stop where I was ticketed for not having a license plate on the front of my car — an offense so common the officer said, “It happens all the time.” I forgot to pay the $100 fine in the allotted time, which resulted in me unknowingly driving around with a suspended license, which is an arrestable offense.

But Elliott says requiring residents to vote is more like jury duty and paying taxes than anything else.

“The idea is that we’re not punishing people,” he said. “The end goal is to create a systemic shift in how we view participation in this democracy.”

For former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, objections to this bill are based on a lack of understanding of its potential.

“We should want the decision about what laws we live under to be most representative of the people it will govern,” he said. “The best way to do that is to require people to vote. Immediately there would be a huge boost in political participation and voter turnout. It would be much more representative of the population we serve, and I think it would lower the toxic level of polarization.”

According to Rapoport, polarization is due in part to the campaign strategy of getting people to vote or not to vote, regardless of party affiliation. If the concern over turnout was off the table, he said, there’s a greater likelihood people would have nuanced conversations about the issues. But, he said, not voting should not be the basis of a criminal warrant.

“Our first goal is to have a serious discussion and debate,” he said “There is evidence that if people are required to vote people tend to educate themselves on how to vote.”

For Elliott, the point is that increasing voter turnout would result in more accountability for elected officials, higher and perhaps even adequate representation for low-income residents, and potentially better political outcomes for people of color and from low-income backgrounds who for a number of valid reasons don’t vote in numbers as high as white, educated and wealthy people.

“There are a lot of things that need to be done right with our voting system before we can say it’s mandatory,” he said. “We can’t require people to vote if voting is limited to one Tuesday in November.”

Even still, Constant says this is not the way to encourage turnout.

“There is a whole range of policies that Connecticut can and should promote to encourage and enable people to vote without coercing voting with the power of the state,” she said. “Expansive and inclusive early voting, the Connecticut Voting Rights Act, and modernization of Connecticut’s voting tabulators are just some proposals the legislature has the chance to consider this year, and those urgently need legislators’ attention.”

There are many reasons this may be a horrible idea. But there is one, supremely important reason it is appealing despite the drawbacks: More people should be voting and we should be designing ways to make it easier.

“I’m happy to carry the mantel for this very unpopular idea,” Elliott said. “After more conversation, you understand that your worst fears are probably not going to be applicable to this bill.”

Since the bill isn’t fully written yet, that remains to be seen.

Mercy A. Quaye writes a monthly column called Sightlines for CT Mirror and is the editor of CT Mirror's Community Editorial Board. In 2015 she founded and continues to lead The Narrative Project, a mission-driven communications consulting group providing communications support to non-profit organizations throughout the state. Born and raised in New Haven, Mercy has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Public Relations, Social Media and Applied Communications, both from Quinnipiac University. Her work experience includes roles as a columnist for Hearst Connecticut, Adjunct Professor of Digital Journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, radio show host, and communications specialist for advocacy, community, and educational organizations.