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Compulsory Voting in Canada: Arguments for and Against and the Example of Australia

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Table of Contents

  • Arguments in Favour of Mandatory Voting
  • Arguments against Mandatory Voting
  • Consequences of Mandatory Voting
  • Experience in Other Countries
  • Australia
  • Compulsory Voting: Considerations for Canada

Voting is one of the most essential principles of democratic government. Participating in an election is, arguably, the most important right of citizenship in democratic nations. Despite its importance, countries around the world are experiencing a decline in voter turnout. In Canada, voter turnout in federal general elections has declined since 1993 and it is likely that voting rates will continue to fall. A number of theories exist to explain why people do not vote. Apathy, cynicism, and negative attitudes towards politicians and the electoral process join socio-demographic factors such as youth, low education, and low income as explanations for a person’s decision not to vote.

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A number of ideas for increasing voter turnout have been generated. Some think minor measures such as widespread publicity campaigns, and scheduling elections on weekends rather than weekdays may increase voter turnout. Others suggest using technology as a method to help citizens meet their voting responsibilities. In contrast to these minor measures, countries such as Australia and Belgium have combated the problem of low voter turnout by implementing laws compelling citizens to vote. Countries that have compulsory voting generally have a much higher turnout than countries without mandatory voting laws, although critics are quick to note that some countries without compulsion laws, such as New Zealand, also have distinguished levels of voter turnout.

This paper discusses compulsory voting. It examines the arguments for and against compulsory voting and considers the experience of countries that have implemented mandatory voting, focusing on Australia.

Arguments in Favour of Mandatory Voting

To some, the justification for compulsory voting is simple. Like paying taxes, voting is a civic responsibility. Only full participation can ensure a chosen government is legitimate. Political scientist Arend Lijphart goes as far as stating:

A political system with the universal right to vote but with only a tiny fraction of citizens exercising this right should be regarded as a democracy in merely a very formalistic and hollow sense of the term. And, practically speaking, a government elected in such a formalistically democratic manner cannot have much democratic legitimacy.

To most proponents of mandatory voting, the overwhelming argument in favour of compulsory voting laws is the high and relatively equal voter turnout. Advocates argue that the decisions made by democratically elected governments are more legitimate when a greater number of the population has participated in the election of that government.

There are other important arguments in favour of mandatory voting. Some believe that increasing voter participation may stimulate stronger participation and interest in other political activities. Furthermore, it forces citizen to be educated and creates at least a minimal level of political interest. Compulsory voting is also thought to reduce the role of money in politics. The rationale is that when everyone is required to vote, there is no need for political parties to spend campaign funds coaxing people to vote. The focus may then shift from concentration on “getting out the vote” to the issues and choices before the voter. The implementation of mandatory voting is also thought to discourage attack advertising. This type of exposure works “mainly by selectively depressing turnout among those not likely to vote for the attacker. When almost everybody votes, attack tactics lose most of their lure.” The elimination of attack advertisements could serve to eliminate some of distrust and cynicism they provoke.

Compulsory voting is also understood to have another important benefit to both society and individuals. It helps to protect against marginality. Since the probability of voting increases with age, education, and income, it is suggested that “actual voters do not form a representative sample but a biased sample of all eligible voters, biased in favor of the privileged members of society.”

Speaking of the experience in Australia, political scientist Lisa Hill notes also that mandatory voting is able to achieve equality of political opportunity. Her justification is that, in Australia, every effort is taken to ensure that all obstacles normally experienced by those who chose not to vote are eliminated. As a result, voting is made much easier for everyone and equality of opportunity is available to all. She explains: “because of the secret ballot, electoral officials cannot compel people to mark their ballot paper. Therefore voting itself does not appear to be compulsory; instead, it is registration and attendance at a polling place that is really compulsory. In this way it is the opportunity to participate rather than the participation itself that is being actively sought.”

Arguments against Mandatory Voting

The leading argument against compulsory voting is that it is not consistent with the freedom associated with democracy because it infringes on the right of the individual not to vote. Opponents of compulsion agree that voting is a treasured right and a significant democratic principle, but “to talk meaningfully about the right to vote, one must also allow the right to refrain from voting.” Although voting can be required, it is not possible to compel someone to have preferences or opinions. Thus, claims to legitimacy based on high vote totals can be dismissed since the votes were, in a sense, forced. Further more, others ask how the participation of the “ignorant and uninterested” can enhance electoral outcomes?

Other arguments claim that political life in general suffers if citizens are required to vote. It is alleged that in Australia political parties and Members of Parliament become lazy. Party organization becomes less responsive and, as a result, disaffection grows among party members. Critics suggest that compulsory voting in Australia has succeeded in getting people to the polls, but it has not solved the feelings of alienation people experience from political parties.

The costs of maintaining a compulsory voting system are also listed as an argument against the retention of an obligatory voting system. The cost of mobilizing the Australian vote and enforcing the electoral law in federal elections is disputed, but one report averages the cost at approximately $5 (Australian) per vote. However, it should be noted that the supporting evidence is “both incomplete and largely anecdotal.”

Consequences of Mandatory Voting

The most significant consequence of compulsory voting is the increased proportion of spoiled votes. Australia has one of the highest levels of invalid votes among established liberal democracies. Spoiled ballots are also a problem in Belgium: the 1995 elections saw nearly 16% of the electorate choose not to vote or to spoil their ballot. Invalid ballots can, however, play a useful function. In a compulsory voting system, casting an invalid ballot may become an additional electoral option – a vote for none of the above. While a non-voter may be dismissed as complacent or apathetic, a spoiled ballot in a compulsory system could “serve as an indicator that the concerns of a growing segment of the public are not being heeded by politicians.” In addition to a high number of invalid votes, there may also be a higher number of random or “donkey” votes. That is, voters who check off a candidate at random (often the top candidate on the ballot paper).

Obligatory voting is also linked to party advantage. For example, “high levels of turnout are thought to favour leftwing parties, since their supporters generally have lower socio-economic status, which in turn leads to a reduced probability of voting.” Alternatively, it is thought that right wing parties benefit from voluntary voting, since it is their voters – those who are generally of a higher socio-economic status – are more likely to turn out to vote.

A final consequence of mandatory voting is a high level of party stability. Australia has one of the highest levels of party identification in the world in the sense that voters have not rejected the major parties by abstaining or changing their party from one election to the next. While other countries such as the United States and Great Britain have seen associations with political parties strongly decline, Australia has generally been immune from this phenomenon since “compulsory voting ensures that voters cast a ballot and the act of voting means that they are forced to think, however superficially, about the major parties.”

Experience in Other Countries

Australia

Every Austalian citizen over the age of 18 is required by law to vote. Compulsory voting was first adopted in Queensland in 1915. Federally, it was introduced in 1924 as a Private Members’ Bill. Before the introduction of compulsory voting, voter turnout peaked at 78.1% in 1917. The last federal election prior to mandatory voting was held in 1922 and saw voter turnout drop to 57.9%. Since 1945, Australia has almost consistently had turnout over 90%.

A number of steps have been taken to facilitate voting in Australia. For example, polling day is always a Saturday. Electors who are out of their division but still in their home state or territory may cast an “absent vote” in any polling place in their home state or territory. Those outside their state or territory are able to cast postal votes, or may cast a pre-poll vote at a pre-poll voting center. Furthermore, the Australian Electoral Commission organizes mobile voting at hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons and in remote areas. One of the reasons that Australia enjoys such a high rate of voting is because “voting is so easy … that failure to vote is far more burdensome than voting. It is much easier to drop in at any of the numerous and conveniently located polling places on your way to the shops than it is to provide an excuse for failure to do so.”

If a person fails to vote, the Australian Electoral Commission will send a letter to the non-voter asking them to explain why they did not vote, and provide the recipient the opportunity to pay a $20 (Australian) fine in order to terminate the issue. If the recipient chooses to write a letter and his or her reasons are found to be “valid and sufficient,” no penalty is applicable. Indifference to candidates is not a reason to abstain from voting, and the courts in Australia have rigorously defended this decision.

The court may fine a person a maximum of $50 if the reasons for voting are found not to be sufficient. Should a person convicted and fined by the court decide not to pay the fine, it is then for the court to decide whether action should be taken or a further penalty imposed. Any additional action taken by the court is in response to the failure to pay the fine, not the failure to vote. Less than one percent of the Australian electorate is ever faced with a fine or court attendance in any given election period.

In general, Australians seem to support compulsory voting, although it is not without its critics. A survey conducted in 1996 found that 74% of respondents favoured mandatory voting. It should be noted that in 1997, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended that if Australia wished to consider itself a “mature democracy,” the provisions of electoral law providing for compulsory voting should be repealed. The Committee refuted the argument that the legitimacy of Australian election results would be undermined by voluntary voting “given that virtually every other democracy in the world manages without compulsion.”

Despite an increase in abstention, less than one quarter of one per cent of non-voters are ever prosecuted. This could be due, in part, to the fact that “the judicial system is already over burdened, and it gives little priority to the prosecution of non-voters. The chances that a non-voter will have to appear before court are extremely small, while fines are rather small anyhow.”

Compulsory Voting: Considerations for Canada

In order to establish a compulsory voting system in Canada, it would be necessary to institute a law compelling citizens to vote. There are a number of ways to do this. Independent legislation outlining the mandatory requirement to vote could be introduced, with the details and a complete regime. Alternatively, amendments to the Canada Elections Act could be introduced. This would appear to be the most sensible way to establish a compulsory voting law. Should one wish to emphasize the importance of voting as a civic duty, it may also be desirable to amend the Criminal Code to include the proposed sanction on those who fail to vote.

The requirement could also be written into the constitution, as is the case in Belgium. For Canada, this would not be the most efficient solution for two reasons. First, unless this law would apply to provincial elections as well as federal, the constitution would not be the appropriate place. Second, considering the difficulties surrounding constitutional amendments, there are much more suitable ways to introduce such legislation.

A mere enactment of a compulsory voting system may not guarantee high voter turnout, and it may be necessary to implement a penalty for those who do not obey the law. Typically, countries with compulsory voting, such as Australia, impose fines on those who do not vote. Other countries deny government services or benefits to non-voters. For example, a voter in Peru must carry a stamped voting card for a number of months after the election as proof of having voted. With out this stamp, it may be difficult to obtain services from certain public offices. Although a penalty of some sort is recommended to ensure that the law is followed, it would be necessary to ensure that undue hardship would not be caused by this penalty for those at a socio-economic disadvantage, whether that means excessive fines or the refusal of government services.

In order to ensure a high rate of compliance, “it is reasonable to expect the state to make voting a relatively painless experience.” Therefore, it would be important to guarantee that the equality of opportunity is actively sought so that all people should be able to equally access the opportunity to vote. As such, proper accommodation is necessary. Should this be implemented in Canada, Elections Canada would have to make sure that appropriate adaptations are made to include the homeless, those living in remote regions, people with a disability, those living abroad, or those with low-literacy skills, to name a few. In addition, consideration should be made for alternate election dates (i.e., on the weekend), numerous and convenient locations, mobile polling, postal and absent voting and electoral education.

To prevent high rates of invalid or random votes, it would perhaps be worthwhile to consider the introduction of a range of political responses, since a number of people in compulsory voting systems complain that they dislike the options available to them. In order to meet the challenge that compulsion limits democratic choice, offering, essentially a “none of the above” option could be useful.

Given arguments that compulsory voting is contrary to the freedom of speech or expression, it might be desirable to obtain a legal opinion, or design any new legislative provisions to ensure that any possible law complies with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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