Issue Report: Compulsory voting

There are currently 32 countries with compulsory voting around the world. They include Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay, Singapore, Cyprus, Greece, and others. Of these 32 countries, 12 aggressively enforce their mandatory voting laws with penalties of varying kinds, including nominal penalties and small fees of as low as $15 and the deprivation of government services or the freezing of one’s bank account. Australia is considered particularly notably for its mandatory voting because it is a large “mature” democracy. Australians have been required to vote in federal elections since 1924, out of a concern that voter turnout had dipped below 60 percent. Polls regularly show 70 percent to 80 percent of Australians support mandatory voting, and voter turnout is above 90% (comparing very favorably to the United States where voter turnout hovers around 50% to 60%). 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 not vote? Finally, should voting be seen as a duty or merely a right? These and other arguments are outlined below.

Democracy: Does mandatory voting enhance democracy?

Voting is not only a right, but a responsibility.

The whole point of freedom is that everyone has a say and has a responsibility to voice their opinion, otherwise the system doesn’t work. non-compulsory voting encourages entire classes of people to not bother with voting, since it is demanding, having to stand in long queues all day. People should exercise their right and responsibility to vote.

50% turnout not democracy; mandatory voting necessary.

Keith Olbermann. "Make voting mandatory voting necessary." Salon. November 5, 2002:

“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 broadens representation and legitimacy.

Such a system guarantees that the government represents a majority of the population, not only a minority of 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.

Mandatory voting would reduce polarization.

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:

“My prediction, based on the difference between voters and nonvoters in the United States today, is that it would reduce political polarization.”

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.

Mandatory voting would compel broader campaign messaging.

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:

“Campaigns wouldn’t have to spend nearly as much time on voter mobilization, nor would they be able to target their message simply to the most passionate partisan members of the electorate. They’d have to craft broader and more inclusive messages. That would be all to the good.”

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.

Mandatory voting more impactful than making voting easier

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 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 established parties

"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.”

Compulsory voting expands government, limits freedom.

"The Case against Compulsory Voting." Musings. January 16th, 2010:

“compulsory voting will require processes and man power to ensure adherence. Its a massive expansion of government and hence a colossal waste of tax payers money.”

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?

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.

First-time voters will better inform themselves.

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:

“In Australia, the case that I know the best, these nonvoters who are being drafted into the political system were referred to pejoratively as ‘donkey voters’ [who vote for candidates based only on their order on the ballot]. But in fact, once they have to vote, they may work a little bit harder than they would have otherwise to know what’s going on.”

Mandatory voting makes first-time voters see value in vote

Compulsory voting won't compel voters to become more informed.

Compulsory voting will not bring people’s attention to politics. Why? If they were too lazy to vote in the first place, why should they 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 a more informed electorate and 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.

Compulsory voting mistrusts intelligence of citizens.

"The Case against Compulsory Voting." Musings. January 16th, 2010:

“compulsory voting is a extreme form of cynicism. An Unwillingness to trust people’s judgment. If people have to be forced to vote, I wonder what kind of democracy will that entail?”

Rights: Is mandatory voting a requirement?

Voting is more of a duty than a right.

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 probably are a lot of people who believe that not serving on juries is a right. But that’s not how we see it in this country—it’s a duty. So, the issue that my proposal puts on the table is: What are the responsibilities of American citizenship? That’s a matter that we can decide collectively.” Just like paying taxes, voting is essential and can be seen as a duty of each and every individual because of its great importance for the harmonious functioning of a society.

Voting as duty makes people take it more seriously.

"On Voting as a Duty Versus Voting as a Right" Naked Capitalism. November 2nd, 2010:

“So I’ve now become a believer in seeing voting as a duty on the theory that regarding it as obligatory, as opposed to elective, forces one to take it a tad more seriously.”

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 these other activities.

Benefits of mandatory voting outweigh costs to freedoms.

Norman Ornstein. "Vote - or else." New York Times. August 10th, 2006:

“Mandatory voting comes with a price: a modest loss of freedom. But this would be more than balanced by the revitalization of the rapidly vanishing center in American politics.”

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 tochoose 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?

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.'”

Protest voting composes a small percentage of total.

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’s not a lot of evidence that many people are casting protest votes or intentionally foolish votes or are spoiling their ballots. That’s about 2 or 3 percent of the electorate. Those are the free spirits who resent the law so much that they are protesting in the only way that the law provides. But by and large, for the other 91 or 92 percent, the system is working just fine.”

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?”

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