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Debate: Compulsory voting

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Is mandatory voting a good idea?

Background and context

There are currently 32 countries with compulsory voting around the world. They include Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay, Singapore, Cyprus, Greece, and France.
Of these 32 countries, 12 really enforce their mandatory voting laws with penalties of varying kinds, including nominal penalties and small fees of as low as $15 on the more lenient end and the deprivation of government services and even the freezing of one's bank account on the more strict end. The debate surrounds whether mandatory voting enhances a democracy, improves voter participation, increases voter awareness on key political issues, and reduces arguably wasteful campaign spending on such things as voter turnout. But, opponents wonder whether compulsory voting violates the "right" to vote, and thus to also not vote? Should voting be seen as a duty or merely a right? These and other arguments are outlined below.


Democracy: Does mandatory voting enhance democracy?

Pro

  • Mandatory voting broadens representation and legitimacy. Such a system guarantees that the government represents a majority of the population, not only individuals who vote. This helps ensure that governments do not neglect sections of society that are less active politically, and victorious political leaders of compulsory systems may potentially claim greater political legitimacy than those of non-compulsory systems with lower voter turnout.
  • 50% turnout is a shame; mandatory voting necessary. Keith Olbermann. "Make voting mandatory voting necessary." Salon. November 5, 2002: "Thus I offer two modest proposals to get head and hair flying. First: Mandatory voting. You heard me. A democracy where half of the citizens sit back and say, "no, thanks," isn't a democracy at all -- just a really large oligarchy. If we have not already reached it, we are nearing, inevitably, the point at which everyone who votes has a personal stake in the outcome. As the percentage of lever-pullers continues to decline, it's going to eventually be just the candidates' friends, families and people from their secret second lives who even bother to show up. You know -- like park league softball."
  • Mandatory voting decreases need for big dollars in campaigns. Because mandatory voting means that no large campaign funds are needed to goad voters to the polls, the role of money in politics will decrease.
  • Compulsory voting reduces power of lobbying groups. A benefit of compulsory voting is that it makes it more difficult for special interest groups to vote themselves into power. Under a non-compulsory voting system, if fewer people vote then it is easier for smaller sectional interests and lobby groups to control the outcome of the political process. The outcome of the election reflects less the will of the people (Who do I want to lead the country?) but instead reflects who was logistically more organized and more able to convince people to take time out of their day to cast a vote (Do I even want to vote today?).
  • Compulsory voting decreases risk of political instability. High levels of participation decreases the risk of political instability created by crises or dangerous but charismatic leaders.


Con

  • Mandatory voting does not enhance legitimacy of govt. Even if compulsory voting allows for abstention, legitimacy is not improved. It merely allows the government to say 'because there is a 100% turnout, this government is 100% legitimate', which is clearly not the case. Donkey votes, random votes, "just for the fun of it" votes, protest votes and abstentions do NOT contribute to improved legitimacy of the government. There is a reason why some people are less politically active. They neither know nor care about politics. How can their forced input add legitimacy to the mix?
  • Mandatory voting pushes ignorant/disinterested to vote. Some individuals resent the idea of compulsory voting, particularly if they have no interest in politics or no knowledge of the candidates. Others may be well-informed, but have no preference for any particular candidate, and have no wish to give support to the incumbent political system. Such people may vote at random simply to fulfill legal requirements: the so called donkey-vote may account for 1-2% of votes in these systems, which may affect the electoral process. Similarly, citizens may vote with a complete absence of knowledge of any of the candidates, or deliberately skew their ballot to slow the polling process or disrupt the election.
  • Not voting is often a form of political expression. Supporters of voluntary voting assert that low voter participation in a voluntary election is not necessarily an expression of voter dissatisfaction or general political apathy. It may be simply an expression of the citizenry's political will, indicating satisfaction with the political establishment in an electorate. Mark Latham urged Australians to hand in blank votes for the 2010 election. He stated the government should not force citizens to vote or threaten them with a fine.
  • Mandatory voting may increase hold of two-party system. "The case against compulsory voting in democracies." Helium: "the political system in America is concentrated in two parties, with only minor successes of alternate parties. These two parties, as opposed to eight competitive parties in Australia, spend millions of dollars annually encouraging their members to vote in elections. With the implementation of compulsive voting, the political parties would instead spend those millions trying to convince non-party members of the superiority of their respective positions. Instead of saving money, the two parties would only increase in power as more members join their folds, reducing the power of smaller parties to democratically compete."
  • Forcing a vote is as bad for democracy as poor turnout. Debra Saunders. "The trouble with compulsory voting." Real Clear Politics. July 13th, 2010: "I do recognise that a low turnout in elections lends itself to questions about the legitimacy of those elected – and indeed, in the institutions themselves. But if we are 'forced to be free' (and I’m using that in not quite the way Rousseau did, though if his assertion that we are only truly free when electing our representatives is correct, then it follows) then the legitimacy that we are bestowing upon those who represent us appears to be artificial and manufactured at best."


Political education: Does mandatory voting help educate electorate?

Pro

  • Mandatory voting compels voters to better educate themselves. Compulsory voting will potentially encourage voters to research the candidates' political positions more thoroughly. This may force candidates to be more open and transparent about their positions on many complex and controversial issues. Citizens will be willing to inform themselves even about unpopular policies and burning issues that need to be tackled (some even at the cost of social benefits). Better-informed voters will, therefore, oppose a plan that is unrealistic or would present an unnecessary budget-drain. This means that such a system could produce better political decisions that are not contradicting each other, quite upon the contrary.


Con

  • Compulsory voting won't compel voters to become more informed. “Compulsory voting will bring people's attention to politics and thus they will be more willing to inform themselves. ..” Why? If they were too lazy to vote in the first place, why should they put themselves out to go researching the issues now? They will simply go from the Bar to the polling booth and back to the bar in as short a time as is feasible. Thus, this will result in anything but better policies.
  • Compulsory voting may cause backlash against participation. Compulsory voting may discourage political education of the citizens because people forced to participate may react against the perceived source of oppression.


Rights: Is mandatory voting a requirement?

Pro

  • Compulsory voting is smaller intrusion than jury duty, taxes, etc. Other civic duties also exist, like paying taxes, attending school and, in some democracies, military conscription and jury duty. All of these obligatory actives require far more time and effort than voting does, thus compulsory voting can be seen as constituting a much smaller intrusion of freedom than any of the other activities.
  • Mandatory voting seen as social norm where it exists. "The case against compulsory voting in democracies" Helium: "Some researchers speculate that compulsory voting has become something of a social norm, much like other laws have become accepted as socially integrated in the United States. To not vote in Australia, perhaps, is to commit a social act of ignorance. In any case, compulsory voting has been widely accepted in Australia, and most of Lijphart's comments on the practice's effects upon democracy seem to pan out quite accurately."

Con

  • Mandatory voting undermines the "right" to vote Voting is not a civic duty, but rather a civil right. While citizens may exercise their civil rights (free speech, marriage, etc.) they are not compelled to. Compulsory voting can be seen as infringing a basic freedom of the citizen. Some consider the fining of recalcitrant voters to be more oppressive still.
Jerry Curtis. "The case against compulsory voting in democracies." Helium: "A case against compulsory voting can be founded on the fact that voting is a right, but not strictly an obligation. True, most rights have inherent obligations. For example, the right to free speech carries with it the obligation to exercise it responsibly. Likewise, the right to vote has a similar obligation. However, when made compulsory, voting becomes less than a right, especially when there is some penalty attached to failure to vote."
  • Voting is not a civic duty. A duty is a duty only when there is some tangible service involved. How can I, voting for what I myself want, be in any way performing a service for some else?
  • Compulsory voting violates freedom of choice. A democracy is based on the principle of respecting basic human freedoms, such as free choice. This principle is directly violated by compulsory voting, as people do not have the right to choose not to express their view (should they have any).
  • Compulsory voting may infringe on freedom to express one's relgion. For example, most Jehovah's Witnesses believe that they should not participate in political events. Forcing them to vote explicitly denies them their freedom of religious practice. In some countries with universal voting, Jehovah's Witnesses and others may be excused on these grounds. If however they are obliged to show up to vote, they can still use a blank or invalid vote.


Non-participation: Could this ability still be preserved?

Pro

  • Voters could be given option to vote "none of the above." Keith Olbermann. "Make voting mandatory voting necessary." Salon. November 5, 2002: "The message has to be clear: We're not trying to make you vote for anybody. We just want you to show up. Every ballot, from the presidency to the sewage district supervisor, would have to include a 'none of the above' option. We might tinker with the terminology to make it hipper, and to tap into the incipient anger. 'None of the above' could become 'Screw you, politicians.'"


Con

  • There are many reasons for not participating in elections. Balaji Chithra Ganesan. "The Case against Compulsory Voting." Musings. January 16th, 2010: "People have genuine reasons not to vote. They could be working away from home and cannot afford to go home for voting. Daily labourers cannot miss a day's work. People might be sick, old and dying. People might be travelling for causes that are much more important like ... family. In the ridiculously staggered elections we have, people can have a holiday when their place of work goes to polls and not when their hometown goes to polls. Now how incredibly arrogant and perverted should someone be, to ask the above people to come, stand before a babu and explain their conduct? Or else face punishment! Really? How arrogant? How can citizens be treated with such disdain?"


Enforcement: Can compulsory voting be enforced?

Pro

  • Punishment for not voting could be modest but symbolic. A fine could be imposed of between $15 and $100. This is tolerable, and if somebody really doesn't want to vote, they could easily absorb such a fee. The point is that it is a recognizable punishment and a modest incentive to participate in an election.
  • There are many exemptions for when citizens can't vote. Although voting in a country may be compulsory, penalties for failing to vote are not always strictly enforced. In Australia and Brazil, providing a legitimate reason for not voting (e.g. being sick or outside the country) is accepted. In Argentina, those who were ill on voting day, or over 500 kilometers away from their voting place are also excused, by requesting a doctor to prove their condition, in the first case; or asking for a certificate at a police station near where they are, in the second case.


Con

  • Mandatory voting would be difficult to enforce. Jerry Curtis. "The case against compulsory voting in democracies." Helium: "compulsory voting would probably cause additional problems in administering the vote, as well as problems in enforcement. (What about absentee voting?) Enforcing penalties (fines, public service, etc.) would further encumber our already clogged justice system. It would also adulterate our political process with worthless ballots from those voters who are uninterested and ill-informed. In short, voting is a right, but not an obligation."
  • Punishing citizens when they aren't harming others is unacceptable. "The Case against Compulsory Voting." Musings. January 16th, 2010: "Article 21 of our constitution provides for 'Personal liberty'. I think its a violation of fundamental rights provided by that article, to make citizens explain their choices in such a whimsical issue as voting in the elections. And punishing citizens for not harming anyone's right to anything is utterly unacceptable. Remember, this article grants citizens the right to Emigrate out of India without having to give any reason."

Quality: Does mandatory voting improve the quality of voting?

Pro

  • Mandatory voting will ensure voters see value in their vote. Keith Olbermann. "Make voting mandatory voting necessary." Salon. November 5, 2002: "Mandatory voting would require a system of rewards and/or punishments and another bureaucracy. But if adopted, it would instantaneously reconfigure the political landscape. Gone would be the ages-old excuse of the nonvoter: that his ballot matters not. At some fundamental level, his ballot would matter dearly to himself, because failure to cast it would invoke the wrath of the Mandatory Voting Enforcement Division."


Con

  • Forced active participation can reduce quality of votes. Allowing or rather forcing ignorant people to vote can hamper the thoughtful votes of citizens who vote with a reason rather than because of coercion.
"The case against compulsory voting in democracies." Helium: "Voting is a chance for citizens to influence their government, key to the United States' democratic tradition. However, in today's political climate, citizens are likewise influenced through popular media, bloggers, and so-called grassroots organizations. Special interest groups, such as unions, co-ops, and businesses, play the largest single role in determining candidate or party success through financial support and public endorsements. The idea that the American citizen will take the time to sufficiently research potential candidates is idealistic, and instead those same citizens will take only their media-spawned prejudices to the voting booth. Responsible democratic voting will become even less likely."
Debra Saunders. "The Trouble with Compulsory Voting." Real Clear Politics. July 13th, 2010: "if people are so ill informed as to believe their votes have no import, well, they're probably right."


Access: Will mandatory voting improve access?

Pro

  • Compulsory voting helps protect voter access. In a similar way that the secret ballot is designed to prevent interference with the votes actually cast, compulsory voting prevents interference with access to the vote. Compelling voters to the polls for an election mitigates the impact that external factors may have on an individual's capacity to vote such as the weather, transport, or restrictive employers. It is a measure to prevent disenfranchisement of the socially disadvantaged. Polls are generally held on a Saturday or Sunday as evidenced in nations such as Australia, to ensure that working people can fulfill their duty to cast their vote. Similarly, mobile voting booths may also be taken to old age homes and hospitals to cater for immobilized citizens, and postal voting may be provided for people who are away from their electorate on election day.


Con

  • Quality of decisions matters more than access to vote. The important thing is that informed citizens are electing the best possible candidates to lead communities, states, and an entire country. Access to vote is also important, but it is somewhat secondary to the ultimate question of quality leadership.


Examples: Are there examples of succesfull mandatory voting?

Pro

  • Mandatory voting has been succesful in Australia. Australia has had mandatory voting for decades without any problems and without serious protest or complaint. Voter participation has increased remarkably, along with the general awareness of the Australian citizenry. This demonstrates its viability in other countries.
  • Mandatory voting exists in over 30 years. There are currently 32 countries with compulsory voting. Of these, only 12 countries (and one Swiss canton) enforce it. Of the 30 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 10 have forms of compulsory voting.


Con


Public opinion: Where does public opinion stand on this issue?

Pro

  • American people will come around to mandatory voting. William Galston, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "Mandatory voting would loosen partisan gridlock." US News and World Report. July 8th, 2010: "There was a poll a while back that found that more than 70 percent of Americans opposed a compulsory voting system. What we do know is that Americans over time change their minds on very fundamental questions. If you had polled Americans 50 years ago on interracial marriage, you would have found a majority opposed, but the Supreme Court acted nonetheless and now you have overwhelming majorities in favor. Once a conversation is started, if there is some intrinsic merit to the argument, then public opinion shifts over time. In my own view—which reflects a constitutional necessity since the electoral laws are largely determined by the 50 states—it would probably be a good idea for a handful of states to try mandatory voting for a couple of election cycles and see what happens."


Con

  • Compulsory voting causes anti-govt feelings. Democracy is based on the freewill of the individual. Enforcing participation invalidates this, and creates antipathy.


Pro/con sources

Pro

Con


External links

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