Editorial: No, California should NOT force people to vote

City clerk Betsy Hawkins drops a vote by mail ballot into an official ballot box during a Newport Beach general municipal election in 2014.
(Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)

Few states have done as much as California to boost participation in elections by making it easier to register and to cast a vote. And this approach appears to have reaped results. More than 20.4 million Californians are registered to votethe most ever and the highest percentage of eligible voters ever leading into a presidential primary.

What the state has not done is resort to threats and intimidation to get people to the polls. And it should certainly not start doing so now by embracing the half-baked idea proposed by Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) in AB 2070. The bill, which was filed this week, would require that all registered voters actually cast a ballot at every election on or before election day. If they don’t, the bill directs the secretary of state to enforce the law, although it doesn’t specify how.

We’re glad that Levine is an advocate for robust elections, but he has hit on a really bad idea.

Under the bill, people who receive a mail ballot would have to return it, either by mail or in person (although they are not required to mark it up). Presumably, this requirement would extend to people who vote in person and would require them to show up at a polling station to collect and then “turn in” a ballot, blank or otherwise. Election officials would have to collect and process thousands, if not millions, of blank ballots and then track down those who didn’t turn one in so they could be punished. That’s an absurd waste of time and resources.

Sure, maybe some of those unmotivated voters might think, “What the heck, I may as well make some choices if I have to turn in a ballot anyhow.” But is it really desirable to force people to vote even if they may not have a clue about the candidates or ballot measures being decided?

And here’s another problem. Levine’s proposal may run afoul of the 1st Amendment, which guarantees that Americans’ right to free speech will not be abridged. Surely courts would agree that the right not to vote is part of one’s free speech, and, by the same token, that forcing people to vote is a form of “compelled speech.” Even if voters aren’t required to mark their ballots in favor of a candidate, the proposal remains legally questionable.

It’s true that many countries have mandatory voting laws, including Australia and Brazil. But that’s never been the American way (and there’s no evidence those countries have a stronger democracies or more effective governments).

By all means, the Legislature should pass voting reforms that improve the system. But while this bill might result in more votes being cast, we’re not convinced it will improve the system.