Vote Or Pay A Fine, Massachusetts State Rep’s Bill Says

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If state representative Dylan Fernandes (D-Falmouth) has it his way, you could either vote in the general election in November or face a small fine. 

Fernandes proposed Massachusetts House Bill 788, titled “An Act Making Voting Obligatory and Increasing Turnout in Elections,” this past March. It would make voting in November general elections obligatory. If it passes, a $15 fine would be added to every eligible non-voter’s state income tax for each general election the eligible non-voter missed. The bill would also eliminate voter registration deadlines.

Fernandes told NewBostonPost in a recent telephone interview that he filed the bill knowing it would not pass, but he thinks it is an important piece of legislation. 

“I think this is a conversation starter,” Fernandes said. “There are two schools of thought when filing legislation. One is neatly putting up a bill that you neatly comb through line by line and want it passed exactly how it is. And then the other route is filing an idea because you think it’s worthy of debate and conversation. You want it to be an idea you want the public to consider.”

“This is more filed as an idea,” he added. “A number of different things would have to happen for it to pass. It won’t pass this session, and there’s a chance it never passes. But I think it drives at a fundamental question of living in a democracy:  is voting a civic right or is it a civic duty?”

Typically, compulsory voting is an unpopular proposal in the United States and an issue that splits Democrats. A 2015 YouGov poll found that 26 percent of Americans favored compulsory voting whereas 66 percent opposed. Among Democrats, 45 percent supported and 46 percent opposed.

With 3,658,005 out of the 4,812,909 eligible voters in Massachusetts (76 percent) voting in the November 2020 midterm election, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, Fernandes’s legislation would have resulted in $17,323,560 in fines for those who chose not to vote, if they all paid the fine.

Paul Craney, the executive director of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, ripped the proposal.

“The way this works is first they will impose a fine in order to force you to vote, the next step is to fine you even more if you vote for the wrong candidate,” Craney told NewBostonPost in an email message. “Rep. Fernandes should be ashamed of himself. He’s too young to have these sinister types of motives.”

To avoid the fee, all voters would need to do is to return their ballot either in person or through the mail. The legislation states “nothing shall impede a voter’s right to complete and return a ballot that does not include any actual votes for candidates.”

Some opponents say such a a requirement would lead to more uninformed voting. As it is, only 23 percent of registered voters can find Iran on a map, according to a recent Morning Consult poll. In 2016, a poll conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that 10 percent of college graduates thought Judith Sheindlin, better known as “Judge Judy,” is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fernandes noted that the state has taken steps towards teaching more civics in public schools to create a more well-informed state.

“That’s so important,” said Fernandes, whose office is on Beacon Hill in Boston, along with those of other state legislators. “I can’t tell you how many times adults have asked me what it’s like to commute to Washington D.C. for work. I think it’s wonderful we passed it for kids. And frankly, maybe some adults could use it as well.”

In 2015, Hans A. von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation argued that compulsory voting is unconstitutional because of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, ratified in 1962, which makes it unlawful to prohibit anyone from voting for failure to pay a “poll tax,” or tax levied on every adult. He described compulsory voting laws as a “reverse poll tax.”

Fernandes noted there are other places in American life where service is mandated by law, citing jury duty and past conscription laws.

In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau released data explaining why people did not vote in the 2016 presidential election. Among the top reasons were:  “did not like candidates or campaign issues” (24.8 percent), “not interested” (15.4 percent), “too busy, conflicting schedule” (14.3 percent), illness or disability (11.7 percent), and “out of town” (7.9 percent).

The top two reasons — more than 40 percent of the total — represent people who did not want to vote in that particular election. 

Analysis from the libertarian CATO Institute found that compulsory voting did not affect electoral outcomes when analyzing 32 countries where similar policies already exist. It raised voter participation rates from about 80 percent to 90 percent. However, CATO questions if it would have the same impact in the United States where election turnout tends to be lower.

Fernandes emphasized that he’s not proposing compulsory voting to favor Democrats. 

“I don’t consider it a partisan issue,” Fernandes said. “I actually love this bill because you get such a wide range of reactions to it. Some people think it’s a great way to boost turnout and that it seems fair. And then other people have called me a fascist. I believe that one was a Democrat. You get a little bit of everything.”

Australia has compulsory voting in its federal elections. The country had a 91.89 percent voter turnout rate in its 2019 federal election. There, voters get a $20 fine ($14.28 USD) the first time they don’t vote and $50 ($35.70) for each repeat offense, according to the Western Australia Election Commission.

A hearing was held on Fernandes’s bill on October 20, but no further action has been taken. The Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws held that hearing.

Fernandes filed the same bill last year (H.653), and it was sent for further study, essentially killing it for that legislative session. No further action was taken on the bill.


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