Compulsory Voting

As I see folks share that they voted, I’m reminded of the idea of mandatory voting, in which all eligible citizens are required to vote unless they have a valid excuse.

In ancient Athens, it was seen as the duty of every eligible citizen to participate in politics; while there was no explicit requirement, you could be subject to public criticism or even a fine.

Today, only a few countries require citizens to vote, most of them in Latin America; but of this already small number, only a handful actually enforce it with penalties.

Image may contain: text that says 'Nodata No data No compulsory voting No sanctions Source: -Dem Dataset Version 8 (2018) Minimal sanctions Costly sanctions'
Note: The light blue countries require voting but don’t enforce it. (Source: Wikimedia)

Moreover, just five of the world’s 35 established democracies have compulsory voting: Australia, Luxembourg, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Belgium (which has the oldest existing compulsory voting system, dating back to 1893.) In Belgium, registered voters must present themselves at their polling station, and while they don’t have to cast a vote, those who fail to at least show up without proper justification can face prosecution and a moderate fine. (To make it easier, elections are always held on Sundays.) If they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years, and might face difficulties getting a job in government (though in practice fines are no longer issued).

The arguments for compulsory voting is that democratic elections are the responsibility of citizens—akin to jury duty or paying taxes—rather than a right. The idea is that making voting obligatory means all citizens have responsibility for the government they choose; in a sense, it makes the government more legitimate, since it represents the vast majority of people.

The counterargument is that no one should be forced to take part in a process they don’t believe in or otherwise don’t want to be a part of; basically, not voting is itself a form of expression. Unsurprisingly, this view is prevalent in the U.S., where many believe compulsory voting violates freedom of speech because the freedom to speak necessarily includes the freedom not to speak. Similarly, many citizens will vote solely because they have to, with total ignorance about the issues or candidates. In many cases, they might deliberately skew their ballot to slow the polling process and disrupt the election, or vote for frivolous or jokey candidates. This is prevalent in Brazil, the largest democracy with mandatory voting, where people increasingly have become cynical about politics, elect joke candidates, and still choose not to vote despite the penalty.

Some have argued that compulsory elections help prevent polarization and extremism, since politicians have to appeal to a broader base (i.e. the entire electorate). It does not pay to energize your base to the exclusion of all other voters, since elections cannot be determined by turnout alone. This is allegedly one reason Australian politics are relatively more balanced, with strong social policies but also a strong conservative movement.

Finally, there is the claim that making people vote might also make them more interested in politics. It’s been shown that while lots of folks resent jury duty for example, once they’re in the jury, they typically take the process seriously. Similarly, they may hate mandatory voting in theory but in practice will find themselves trying to make the best of it.

Maine Votes on an Alternative to the Two-Party System

Outside of Stephen King novels, Maine does not figure prominently in the American psyche. (No offense Mainers, your state is beautiful and relatively well governed, so maybe the lack of any attention speaks to its quiet success.) But the New England state of 1.3 million has an intriguing initiative on the ballot that might offer a well needed shake up of the flawed and increasingly maligned two-party system that currently prevails. At a time when cynicism towards the U.S. political process has perhaps never been better, this idea is worth looking into. Continue reading