The Duty to Vote in an American City
71 Pages Posted: 11 Oct 2021 Last revised: 22 Apr 2022
Date Written: February 6, 2022
The duty to vote is making a comeback. Compulsory voting has long struck legal scholars and political scientists as the ultimate game-changing electoral reform—but one almost unimaginable in the United States. Yet even as states controlled by Republicans have made a coordinated effort to limit voting rights, some progressives have begun charting a path to make voting a universal civic duty. Cities offer a promising place to start.
Voting has in fact been made a legal duty in the United States—precisely once. That story has never been told. This article excavates the history of compulsory voting in an American city. In 1889, voters in Kansas City, Missouri approved a poll tax that applied only to eligible voters who failed to cast a ballot in local elections. This duty to vote remained in force during four local election cycles, from 1890 to 1896, when the Missouri Supreme Court struck it down in Kansas City v. Whipple.
How and why did voting become a duty in Kansas City? And what happened during this singular electoral experiment? The article describes how a newspaper publisher brought the case for compulsory voting to Kansas City, by echoing claims made elsewhere that it would cure the purported evils of universal suffrage and mitigate the ills of machine politics. The provision was added to the city’s first home rule charter following three tumultuous years for local politics, when the rising political power of organized labor and Black leaders had unsettled alliances and begun to reshape the electorate. Ultimately, bureaucratic conflict and legal uncertainty prevented collection of the poll tax. Despite high expectations, it did not substantially increase turnout—either among the responsible businessmen that proponents believed were failing to do their civic duty, or more generally among the city’s eligible voters.
Kansas City’s unprecedented experiment offers political, practical, and legal lessons for today. It suggests that proposals to make voting a duty might receive political support in places that progressives might find surprising, and for reasons they could find troubling. It highlights how the division of administrative labor in running elections could prevent some U.S. cities from making voting a duty, and empower others. It points to how local government law and specific state constitutional provisions would prove crucial to determining municipalities’ power to make voting a duty. Finally, it sheds new light on federal issues raised by compulsory voting, including whether it violates the 24th Amendment, and whether it might constitute vote dilution prohibited by the Voting Rights Act.
Kansas City’s forgotten experiment offers a key starting point for reconstructing the untold history of compulsory voting in the United States. It also provides crucial lessons for people who would hope to see the duty to vote emerge once again in an American city.
Keywords: compulsory voting, local goverment law, election law
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