In many countries around the world individuals are free to choose to vote or not to vote, while in other countries (Australia, a couple cantons in Switzerland, Belgium and Singapore , for example) it is compulsory for citizens to vote. Punishment for non-voting can vary from a $15 fine to the possible deprivation of government services or the freezing of one's bank account. Is this a violation of an individual’s freedom of choice? With the citizens of many countries fighting for their right to vote, is it right that US voting turnout hovers around 50 – 60%of registered voters 1? Should voting be seen as a duty or a right? This debate explores whether compulsory voting improves voter participation, increases voter awareness on key political issues, and reduces the powers of special interest groups.
Other civic duties also exist “which are recognised as necessary in order to live in a better, more cohesive, stable society” 1 like paying taxes, attending school, obeying road rules and, in some countries, military conscription and jury duty. All of these obligatory activities 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.
The right to vote in a democracy has been fought for throughout modern history . In the last century alone the soldiers of numerous wars and the suffragettes of many countries fought and died for enfranchisement. It is our duty to respect their sacrifice by voting.
1.Liberal Democrat Voice, 2006
A democracy is based on the principle of respecting basic human rights, such as free choice. This principle is directly violated by compulsory voting. With many civil rights there is a choice to choose to engage in the activity or not. Voting has carries that option, citizens of a democracy have the choice to either vote or not, despite being encouraged to vote. It does not matter why a person chooses to vote or not, it is the fact of principle that they have the right to choose. Compulsory voting goes against such ideas of the freedom of choice, and on that grounds should not be compulsory.
The proposition speaks of those who died for the right to vote, and respecting their sacrifice by voting. Unfortunately the proposition misconstrued the point of their sacrifice- to give us the freedom of choice. That right of choice must be upheld, as it is the cornerstone of a democratic society. Compulsory voting would be infringing upon that.
Voter apathy is highest among the poorest and most excluded sectors of society. As the Institute for Public Policy Research highlight, “the higher the income a citizen enjoys, and the higher the educational qualifications attained, the more likely it is that he or she will turn out to vote”. Since they do not vote, the political parties do not create policies for their needs, which leads to a vicious circle of increasing isolation. By making the most disenfranchised vote the major political parties are forced to take notice of them and this would reduce political polarisation 1. An example of this is in the UK where the Labour party abandoned its core supporters to pursue ‘middle England’. Political parties are drawn towards those groups to whom favourable policies will be rewarded in the form of vote. Compulsory voting ensures that all stakeholders in society are proportionally considered in governmental policy.
This idea is nonsense. Political parties do try and capture the ‘disadvantaged groups’ vote, specifically in order to convince them that voting is in their best interest. As opposed to compulsory voting, a voluntary system in fact encourages political parties to target policies at the disadvantaged in order to convince them to get out and vote , rather than accept that the disadvantaged will simply vote for the opposition. The Labour Party shifted to the right in the UK specifically because no-one was voting for it; the majority of the population, from across the social spectrum, no longer believed in its socialist agenda and it altered its policies to be more in line with the majority of the population. Low turnout is best cured by more education, for example, civics classes could be introduced at school. In addition, the inclusion of these ‘less-interested’ voters will increase the influence of spin as presentation becomes more important. It will further trivialise politics and bury the issues under a pile of hype. Another alternative could be reforming the voting system of the individual countries to better accommodate its population.
Compulsory voting increases the number of people who cast their vote 1. People who know they will have to vote will take politics more seriously and start to take a more active role. 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. 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.
1 Peter Tucker, The median Australian voter and the values that influence their vote choice presented by the author at the 3rd European Consortium for Political Research Conference in Budapest, September 10, 2005.
Forcing the population to vote will not stop people expressing their wish not to vote. Tucker notes that in Australia 5% of eligible voters did not caste a valid vote. Most countries that use compulsory voting give voters a legal opportunity to abstain. For example, in Australia valid explanations might include being overseas, trying to vote but failing for some reason, or belonging to a religious order which prohibits voting (Electoral Commission). Moreover people who vehemently refuse to vote find a way to do so such as paying the fine straight away (for those who can afford to) or attending the polling station but submitting a blank ballot. McAllister et al (1992)1 conclude that compulsory voting has led to a higher level of non-votes because the only legal method of political protest is to spoil the ballot paper or leave it blank deliberately 2. However, in non-compulsory jurisdictions voters so motivated would boycott the ballot.
Furthermore, forcing people to vote will lead to more meaningless votes. People who are forced to vote against their will won’t make a proper considered decision. At best they will vote randomly which disrupts the proper course of voting. Compared to countries that have no compulsory voting laws, in countries where such laws exist there is an increase in donkey votes (where voters simply chose the candidate at the top of the ballot), random votes, "just for the fun of it" votes, protest votes and abstentions. This does not contribute to improved legitimacy of the government. It merely allows the government to say 'because there is a 100% turnout, this government is 100% legitimate', which is clearly not the case. There is a reason why some people are less politically active. They neither know nor care about politics. How can their forced inputadd legitimacy to the mix?
And this is before issues such as controversy about the aged in nursing homes being 'asissted' with their votes.
2. Laverdea 1991
Australia is one of the most notable examples of compulsory voting and shows how it can be implemented. In Australia Compulsory voting was introduced at federal elections in 1924 1. Every Australian citizen who is over eighteen has to vote unless they have a ‘valid and sufficient reason for failing to vote’ which is decided by the electoral commission whether a reason is sufficient 2. If the elector who fails to vote does not provide such a reason they pay a penalty and if (s)he does not pay then the matter is dealt with in court 3. There is little reason to believe that this would be more difficult to implement in any other country.
1 Evans, Tim, 'Compulsory voting in Australia', Australian Electoral Commission, (January 2006), (accessed 4/8/11)
2 Harrison, Brianna, and Lynch, Philip. Votes for the Homeless, (March 2003), (accessed 4/8/11)
3 Voter Turnout for Referendums and Elections 1901, Australian Electoral Commission, 2010
That it has been implemented successfully in Australia does not mean that compulsory voting will work everywhere. Australia has a small population so the system does not have to be as bureaucratic as it would be in a much bigger nation. Moreover Australia has a law abiding culture and fast and efficient courts so most people will vote even if they object to it being compulsory. In a country with either a slower court system or a population that is less inclined to follow the law the number of cases of failing to vote facing the court could be overwhelming.
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. A notable example would be the disproportionate influence of agriculture in policy making as seen in both European politics and well as American with enormous amounts of subsidies for farmers who represent a minute percentage of the population. 1 2
The outcome of the election therefore 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?).
1 Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky, "Jewish Population of the United States, 2006," in the American Jewish Year Book 2006, Volume 106, David Singer and Lawrence Grossman, Editors. NY: American Jewish Committee, 2006.
2: Mark Weber, Feb. 2009, 'A Straight Look at the Jewish Lobby', Institute for Historical Review (Accessed 10/06/2011)
The power of lobbying groups is a benefit to politics at large. Their ability to publicize issues that are important to specific interest groups are invaluable to the political process. Similarly, they are able to propel and sustain wider interest in the political agenda, ensuring oversight over public policy and recommending necessary changes. To reduce their power in favour of ‘less-interested’ voters will increase the influence of spin as presentation, not substance, becomes more important. It will further trivialise politics and bury the issues under a pile of hype. Furthermore, by removing incentives for political parties to mobilise their support, compulsory voting favours established parties over minor parties and independents, whose supporters tend to be more inherently motivated.
Forcing people into voting when they are disengaged from the politic process will exacerbate this problem; no one likes doing something simply because they have to. The election results from compulsory voting may not be a representative view of society, than the current systems. Just because people are required to vote does not mean they become more politically engaged than they were before.
Rather than forcing people to vote, more should be done to engage the public in political life. Government transparency should be further encouraged as well as evaluating to what extent the current voting system causes low voter turnout.
Low turnout is best cured by more education. Instead of trying to engage people by force, how about introducing political education in schools and encouraging political conversation. How about educating the public on how politics affects them?
Citizenship classes should be taught to students who are approaching voting age, as it would teach the importance of the electoral process, and the history of the suffragette movement, the reform bills of the 19th century and the responsibilities of living in a democracy.
The government should be trying to engage people by other means, not compulsory voting. Compulsory voting may improve low turnout but will not affect the root problem- what people actually think about politics. In essence it is just relieving the side effects without curing the disease.
As noted elsewhere, forced attendance would lead to increased political awareness, and an abstention option would offer a 'none of the above'/'I don't mind or care' choice instead of people spoiling the ballot.
Because the number of voters would increase, politicians would have to be active in engaging with the public and therefore become "more deserving of the public's trust".
Citizenship classes don't negate the need for compulsory voting but should be used in conjunction to compulsory voting.
If people are genuinely not interested in voting or politics, educating them in school would not change that fact. The education is likely to vary from school to school and is only likely to have an impact if the student likes the subject. Compulsory voting would force those parts of the population who are usually disinterested to voice some form of opinion- created a more balanced democracy.
Besides, who pays for the education? Taxpayers. Who often don't want to vote.
If a large proportion of the population decided not to vote it would be impossible to make every non-voter pay the fine. For example, if just 10% of the UK voters failed to do so the government would have to chase up about £4 million in fines. Even if they sent demand letters to all these people, they could not take all those who refused to pay to court. Ironically, this measure hurts most those who the proposition are trying to enfranchise because they are least able to pay.
The cost of policing this system will impact upon tax payers. The Government will need to expand and more civil servants positions will be needed to create, administer and enforce the processes. It is especially prudent that we look closely at the impact it would have financially on individual countries. For example, the US has more than ten times the voting population of Australia “the financial cost for the two nations is vastly different. Since it costs the Australian government roughly five dollars for every ballot they evaluate, the greater number of voters in America would exponentially increase bureaucratic costs".1
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 will reduce spending such as campaign spending on voter turnout. It can also lead to a reduction in the incentive for negative advertising “as there is little to be gained from tactics aimed purely at persuading opposition voters to stay at home” 1.
States that sanction fines usually sanction a very low fine, which even the poorest members can afford. Besides, government like the British seem to manage speeding fines just fine, there is no reason to think they wouldn’t be able to manage non-voting fines. However, other measures such as disenfranchisement (Belgium) and denial of public services (Peru, Greece) can be used, which don’t incur a cost for the individual.
Compulsory voting hides the problem which is causing people to be disengaged from politics; it allows politicians to ignore measures that can tackle the true causes of political disengagement.
States instead should seek on strategies that will eliminate barriers to voting along with reducing the costs of turnout for its citizens, weekend voting, making election days a holiday, simple registration procedures, reforms such as to the party finance rules to widen the playing field, and the creation of a centralized, professional bureaucracy concerned with all aspects of election administration. In the UK, for example, adopting a more proportional system will allow for a political spectrum rather than the three major parties that currently dominate.
The benefits obtained from compulsory voting cannot be gained from any of the strategies mentioned by the opposition. Compulsory voting can enhance a sense of community, as everyone is in it together. This can be especially helpful in bringing new people in to community life. It also forces the silent majority to think about elections which safeguards from extremism.
Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky, “Jewish Population of the United States, 2006,” in the American Jewish Year Book 2006, Volume 106, David Singer and Lawrence Grossman, Editors. NY: American Jewish Committee, 2006.
Peter Tucker, The median Australian voter and the values that influence their vote choice presented by the author at the 3rd European Consortium for Political Research Conference in Budapest, September 10, 2005.