The issue of mandatory voting has been extant for over a century, and it is a complicated question of whether or not a government should impose so cumplusory measures upon its citizenry to enrure a high turnout. There are convincing arguments for both sides, and many gray areas inbetween. This paper shall span three continents, and examine the laws of several countries where mandatory voting exists. Upon a careful examination of the benefits and drawbacks of mandatory voting statutes, a conclusion will be shown that mandatory voting is not a good idea.
Recently, liberal Canadian senator Mac Harb was in Winnipeg promoting the idea of mandatory voting in a speech for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. In Senator Harb’s opinion, mandatory voting reduces the power of special interest groups, ensures that concerns of minority groups are addressed, and restores public trust in the political system. While I’m sympathetic to any change to our electoral system, I really question whether making voting mandatory would restore public trust in the political system. The fact is that people don’t vote precisely because they have no faith in the political system – either there is no candidate that they feel they can vote for, or if they do vote, they vote for the “lesser of three evils” leaving them, again, distrustful of the political system.
Is mandatory voting in the interest of democracy or in the interest of political parties (democracy and politics are not synonymous)? As one astute observer noted, for any political party that gets at least 2% of the vote, they get $1.75 for every vote received. This significantly increases the amount of public monies going into political parties including the mainstream parties (Liberals, Conservatives and NDP). Does that, however, mean that democracy is being served? On the other hand, forcing people who don’t want to vote to do so, does not mean that they are, necessarily, informed voters. Voters may spoil their ballots or vote for fringe parties just to make a statement. There’s nothing wrong with that, but does that advance the state of democracy in Canada?
While it is true that only 22% of Canadian youth bothered to vote in the last election, which is not good for democracy, mandatory voting is only one of many steps needing to be taken to changing our electoral system in order to get youth voting and to improve democracy. One suggestion that that ahs been proposedd is that that they lower the voting age from 18 to 16. Another option is to have “None of the above” as an option on the ballot for those who don’t feel that they can vote for any of the candidates. If more than 50% plus 1 vote for “none of the above”, then there would be no elected person – be it civil, provincial or federal. Or, as others have suggested, have a blank space on the ballot which allows for voters to write in who they would like to vote for.
On the other hand, Winnipeg Sun columnist Tom Brodbeck brings up a good point when he suggests that as part of reforming the political electoral system that “recalls” and referendums should also be part of a reform package. Recall of politicians would likely require that a petition be signed by 15% of eligible voters that would result in the removal of the elected politician and the need for a new election. Referendums, on the other hand, provide the opportunity for voters to have a say on public policy issues by putting policy statements on the ballot.
Insofar as Senator Harb is concerned, it seems that he misses the point of enforcement. In Australia, those who don’t vote are fined $25.00. It is likely that in Canada, voters would ignore this fine making mandatory voting unenforceable. If they want voters in Canada to realize that they not only have the right to vote, but the civic responsibility to do so, we must provide a positive, comprehensive model of reform that includes aspects of all of the above.
Australia, along with Belgium, is the only “mature democracy” that requires its citizens to vote and actually enforces the law. Australia is also a nation we Americans can relate to. We share similar historical narratives (outcasts fleeing Mother England), a frontier spirit, and a laid-back nature that drives Europeans nuts. So Australia makes an interesting test case for an intriguing question: Could mandatory voting work in the United States?
Australians have been required to vote in federal elections since 1924. Concerned that voter turnout had dipped below 60 percent, parliament enacted mandatory voting after only 90 minutes of debate, and it’s gone largely unchallenged ever since. Polls regularly show 70 percent to 80 percent of Australians support mandatory voting. Lisa Hill, a research fellow at the University of Adelaide, explains it this way: “We’re quite happy with some forms of coercion that others may not be happy with.”
Actually, the voting part of “mandatory voting” is a misnomer. All Australian citizens over the age of 18 must register and show up at a polling station, but they need not actually vote. They can deface their ballot or write in Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (Australia’s version of Lassie)—or do nothing at all.
What happens if you don’t show up on Election Day? You’ll receive a fairly polite form letter. At this point, you can settle the matter by paying a $15 fine or offering any number of excuses, including illness (no note from your doctor required), travel, religious objections, or just plain forgetfulness. For most people, the matter ends here. In most elections, about a half-million registered voters don’t come to the polls. Ninety-five percent of them offer a valid excuse, and the matter ends there. Five percent pay a fine.
A few hundred cases each election actually end up in court. Those who refuse to pay the fine or offer a plausible excuse face escalating threats, similar to the ones you receive from American Express when your balance is past due. The fine jumps to $37 and, in extreme cases, a brief prison sentence is imposed. But the Australian government clearly doesn’t want to imprison a lot of its citizens for not voting. I’ve been able to find only a few cases of Aussies going to jail over this in the past few decades—all conscientious objectors courting arrest. A significant percentage of Australians—about 15 percent of them—don’t bother to register at all. The government doesn’t go after these people, reserving fines and prosecutions only for those who register and don’t show up on Election Day. (Australia’s 80-plus percent registration rate is very high compared to other democracies.)
Every election, a few gadflies call attention to the contradiction between free elections and what is effectively forced voting. Frank Devine, a journalist, wrote an editorial in the Weekend Australian the day before the October, 2004 elections, proclaiming that “with some misgivings, I have decided not to vote tomorrow.” Devine pointed out that parking fines in Australia can be 10 times higher than the fine for not voting. “The disparity of punishment for these two scofflaw transgressions illustrates the flippancy with which our politicians have come to regard an act of repressive authoritarianism,” he wrote. If the Australian government were serious about mandatory voting, Devine argued, it would impose much stiffer penalties.
Most Australians obey the law, however, convinced that mandatory voting makes their nation a more robust democracy. That’s a difficult case to make. Yes, voter turnout is remarkably high, but it was in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, too. There is no evidence that Australians are better-informed citizens than Americans. If anything, mandatory voting has reinforced straight party-line voting, since reluctant voters find it easier to align themselves with one party or another and get the whole business done with as quickly as possible.
Mandatory voting isn’t politically neutral. It’s bound to affect which parties do well at the polls and which do not. In general, political scientists believe the practice gives a slight edge (2 percent or 3 percent) to liberal parties, since presumably the poor and disenfranchised, once forced to the polls, tend to vote liberal (although Australia did just re-elect conservative* Prime Minister John Howard).
Australia also has a much higher rate of spoiled ballots than nearly any other democracy. There were 500,000 such ballots (out of 10 million cast) in this month’s election. These include protest votes and those cast by recent immigrants who were confused by the notoriously complicated ballots. It does not include “donkey votes,” so named because apathetic voters play pin the tail on the donkey at the polling station, randomly making their selections.
So, might mandatory voting work in the United States? It’s a tempting quick fix to our low levels of voter turnout. Also, imagine our political parties freed from the burden of having to energize their base. Candidates could focus on converting voters, rather than trying to get them to the polls. As for concerns that mandatory voting represents government coercion, one might argue that our government coerces its citizens to perform many duties: pay taxes, attend school, serve on juries and, in times of war, fight and die for the nation.
In the end, though, mandatory voting is extremely unlikely to work in the states. An ABC News poll conducted this past summer found that 72 percent of those surveyed oppose the idea. The results are almost identical to a similar poll conducted by Gallup 40 years ago. Why such resistance? Perhaps because we view voting as a right, not a responsibility, and nothing is likely to alter that bedrock belief.
Also, mandatory voting would probably cause a further dumbing-down of election campaigns, if such a thing is possible. Motivated by a need to attract not only undecided voters but also unwilling voters, candidates would probably resort to an even baser brand of political advertising, since they would now be trying to reach people who are voting only out of a desire to obey the law and avoid a fine.
Advocates of compulsory voting argue that decisions made by democratically elected governments are more legitimate when higher proportions of the population participate. They argue further that voting, voluntarily or otherwise, has an educational effect upon the citizens. Political parties can derive financial benefits from compulsory voting, since they do not have to spend resources convincing the electorate that it should in general turn out to vote. Lastly, if democracy is government by the people, presumably this includes all people, then it is every citizen’s responsibility to elect their representatives.
The leading argument against compulsory voting is that it is not consistent with the freedom associated with democracy. Voting is not an intrinsic obligation and the enforcement of the law would be an infringement of the citizens’ freedom associated with democratic elections. It may discourage the political education of the electorate because people forced to participate will react against the perceived source of oppression. Is a government really more legitimate if the high voter turnout is against the will of the voters? Many countries with limited financial capacity may not be able to justify the expenditures of maintaining and enforcing compulsory voting laws. It has been proved that forcing the population to vote results in an increased number of invalid and blank votes compared to countries that have no compulsory voting laws.
Another consequence of mandatory voting is the possible high number of “random votes”. Voters who are voting against their free will may check off a candidate at random, particularly the top candidate on the ballot. The voter does not care whom they vote for as long as the government is satisfied that they fulfilled their civic duty. What effect does this unmeasureable category of random votes have on the legitimacy of the democratically elected government?
Some individuals resent the idea of being coerced into voting, particularly if they have no interest in politics or have no knowledge of the individual candidates. Others may be well-informed, but do not have a true preference for any particular candidate. Such people may vote at random simply to fulfill legal requirements. This so called donkey-vote may account for 1% of votes cast in a compulsory voting system.
Libertarians and others often argue that compulsory voting is a violation of personal liberties, and that individuals should be free to decide for themselves whether they wish to vote. These people believe that state control of the electorate runs contrary to the concept of democracy, which is supposed to preserve individual freedoms rather than violating them. Penalizing people who choose not to vote can be seen as oppressive. The fundamental concept behind oppression is that the majority imposes its views on the minority – and in this case, the majority imposes its views about voting on those who do not share those views. Some groups insist that low voter participation in a voluntary election shows widespread dissatisfaction with the political establishment in a country, a message that cannot be accurately conveyed when all citizens are required to cast a ballot.
Another criticism of CV (cumpulsory voting) is that it compels the participation of disinterested and hence poorly informed citizens who would otherwise abstain. A higher rate of
invalid ballots (e.g., Tingsten 1937) and ‘‘donkey ballots’’ (where voters simply select the candidate at the top of the ballot) are some of the few consequences attributable to the mobilization of citizens with low levels of political interest or sophistication. Moreover, some instances of these phenomena are protests against CV itself. Lijphart’s (1997, 10) takes a contrary position, suggesting that CV ‘‘may serve as an incentive [for voters] to become better informed.’’ A crossnational study by Gordon and Segura (1997) finds a small though statistically
significant increase in political sophistication in countries with CV, but otherwise, the evidence for CV promoting greater civic awareness is scant. Another untested argument along these lines is that CV leads to ‘‘higher quality’’ political campaigns; i.e., under CV parties are less concerned with mobilizing partisans and more with the conversion of voters. Lijphart (1997, 10)
speculates that this diminishes (a) the role of money in political campaigns, and (b) incentives for candidates to use attack advertising. Students of Australian politics have speculated whether CV leads to higher levels of party identification than might otherwise result (Mackerras and McAl-
lister 1996), consistent with a view of voters as ‘‘cognitive misers’’, looking for heuristics to help them deal with a forced choice among parties. On the other hand, Australia’s minor parties are obvious beneficiaries and keen supporters of CV, since they provide an alternative for voters dissatisfied with Australia’s major parties, but nonetheless legally compelled to vote. Another long-standing feature of CV is a higher rate of invalid ballots CV does place an onus on citizens, but states with CV typically reciprocate with institutional mechanisms reducing compliance costs (e.g., weekend voting, ease of registration, widespread use of absentee and postal ballots). According to Gosnell (1930, 209) ‘‘fines and penalties under a system of compulsory voting are
a minor matter. The important feature of the system is that voting is regarded as a civic duty and the government does everything to impress upon voters this point of view.’’ And as a practical matter, the more serious the commitment to CV, the more bureaucratic resources are required to maintain registration records and ensure compliance. For instance, in Australia, these two sides of
CV — the ‘‘carrot and stick’’ — are administered by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), a large and highly professional bureaucracy responsible for all aspects of Australian federal elections. Ensuring compliance with CV is just one of many AEC functions, and the bulk of its activities are to do with other aspects of election administration (e.g., redistricting, voter registration, public financing of campaigns, ballot design, location and staffing of polling stations,
vote tallying). Thus one (perhaps unintended) consequence of CV is the centralization and professionalization of election administration. In turn this may mitigate the dangers that accompany decentralized and non-professional election administration, clearly evident in the aftermath of the 2000 U.S. presidential election.
To conclude, mandatory voting would be a nightmare to enforce and would rob us of an important barometer of public interest in politics. If everyone were required to vote, then nobody would be excited to vote. And, of course, there’s another downside: We’d also lose all of those entertaining get-out-the-vote campaigns.
AEC. 1999. Compulsory Voting. Number 8 in Electoral Backgrounder. Canberra:
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Gordon, Stacy B. and Gary M. Segura. 1997. ‘‘Cross-National Variation in the
Political Sophistication of Individuals: Capability or Choice?’’ Journal of Politics
Hicks, Alexander M. and Duane H. Swank. 1992. ‘‘Politics, Institutions, and
Welfare Spending in Industrialized Democracies, 1960-82.’’ American Political
Science Review 86:658–74.
Hooghe, Marc and Koen Pelleriaux. 1998. ‘‘Compulsory Voting in Belgium: an
Application of the Lijphart Thesis.’’ Electoral Studies 17:419–424.
IDEA. 1997. Voter Turnout from 1945 to 1997: A Global Report on Political Participation.
Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral