Mandatory jury service is not an excuse for mandatory voting

The mandatory voting question came up again recently and it’s been pretty much universally panned on the Right side of the street. I felt the same way, but proponents of the scheme have kept up the call since then and the debate continues among the pundits. But one of the more interesting defenses coming from primarily liberal sources has been to say that we have mandatory jury service. Why not apply the same theory to voting since they are both solemn constitutional tasks?

At the Volokh Conspiracy, this argument is deftly knocked down by Ilya Somin.

Key differences between jury service and voting are often ignored by those who use the former as a justification for mandating the latter. The biggest one is that political ignorance is a much less serious problem for jurors than it is for voters. This means that one of the main objections to mandatory voting – the danger of exacerbating the already severe problem of political ignorance – is a much less significant issue when it comes to juries. We need not worry as much about the risks of forcing people to participate who, on average, have even lower levels of political knowledge than the average voluntary voter does.

Unlike voters, who must contend with the vast array of complex issues controlled by modern government, jurors typically decide only a single discrete case where the range of relevant facts is much narrower. In addition, unlike voters, jurors are required to listen to evidence and arguments presented by both sides and then deliberate over them. This contrasts sharply with the behavior of voters, the majority of whom are often ignorant of basic facts about politics and government, and routinely ignore or dismiss evidence opposed to their preexisting views. Some scholars have proposed requiring voters to hear evidence or deliberate on political issues in much the same way as jurors deliberate on cases. I am skeptical of such ideas, for reasons I outlined here and here.

This is an excellent analysis, but I would take the argument off on a slightly different tangent. As important as voting may be, elections happen successfully, albeit with varying levels of a “mandate” in the public eye, no matter how many people show up to vote. And even if the numbers are low, the result is still official land the critical work of determining new legislative or executive representation is accomplished. (The turnout for the 2014 election was barely over 1/3 of the eligible population, the worst since WW2, and we still managed to fill up the Congress and several governorships.)

Conversely, if jury service were left up to only those who were eager and willing to show up, you might not manage to have a trial at all. Let’s just admit it… most people are busy and don’t want to give up a potentially significant period of time on the job, at school or doing whatever else demands their time to go serve in a courtroom. Also, as alluded to in Somin’s article, an apathetic voter is at least somewhat less dangerous than an apathetic juror. There’s really nothing else to do while in the jury box, so you wind up taking in the required information and at least stand a decent chance of rendering a solid verdict.

But thinking about that last point further, who would comprise the pool of people who were “eager” to show up for jury duty? I suppose it’s possible that there’s a small pool of altruistic hyper-patriots who feel the jury system is so important that it should trump their personal needs, but there can’t be that many of them. The others would, I imagine, fall into two categories. One might be people with a pressing, partisan interest in the outcome of the trial, either in favor of or in opposition to the defendant. That’s got to be about the worst possible candidate imaginable for a fair and impartial hearing. The second group would likely be comprised of those with absolutely no prospects for income and nothing better to do with their time who wouldn’t mind collecting the meager check one can earn for jury service. They might do a good job, but I wouldn’t want my fate limited strictly to that pool.

Mandatory jury service works. Without it, an important beam in the framework of our democracy falls to pieces. Mandatory voting on the other hand serves no purpose but to introduce an even larger wildcard into the electoral process. People who can’t be bothered to learn about the issues or the candidates shouldn’t be burdened with the task of flipping a coin to see who will represent them.