Opinion: Should Voting Be Compulsory?

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By Peter Chow

Voter turnout for Canada’s 2019 federal election was an anticlimactic 66 percent.

That compares with 68.3% in 2015, 61.1 percent in 2011, 58.8%   in 2008, 64.7% in 2006, and 60.9% in 2004.   The country achieved its all-time best score for voter turnout in 1958, when 79.4% of eligible voters made it to the polls.  Our worst year on record was 2008, when just 58.8% of voters managed to get off the couch.

So, 66% isn’t bad by contemporary standards. But it’s not great, either.

The Liberals won a plurality of seats in the House of Commons, allowing them to form a government, albeit short of the majority government that they had won in 2015.

The Liberals won 33.12% of the vote, the Conservatives 34.34%.

This means that the Liberals won the election with the support of only 21.86% of total eligible voters.

Given that around 239.2 million Americans were eligible to vote in 2020, the projected number of voters, 159.8 million, brings us to a 66.8% turnout rate. This makes 2020 the year with the highest voter turnout since 1900, when Republican William McKinley won re-election with 73.7% turnout.

1900 was the last time over 70 percent of the US electorate went to the polls.  Since then, the number of people voting has gone up and down usually staying between 50 and 60 percent.

Joe Biden will have won with less than 31% of total eligible voters.

The 2018 Russian presidential election was held in March 2018.  Incumbent Vladimir Putin won re-election for his second consecutive (fourth overall) term in office with 77% of the vote.

In the 2018 Russian election, 67.5% of all eligible voters voted.

So, Putin got 52% of the total eligible vote.

So, do Joe Biden or Justin Trudeau have more legitimate mandates than Vladimir Putin?

Even more troubling than abysmal voter turnout, though, is the extent to which young, low-income, and minority groups and interests are underrepresented in the political process.  67-year-olds have more than five times the electoral influence of 18-year-olds—despite the fact that the younger group is larger. Old, wealthy, and white communities consistently vote at higher rates than young, poor, and minority ones, and these disparities may partly explain why elected officials are, on average, older and wealthier than the populations they represent and why the policies they support often fail to reflect the preferences of their constituents.

Political scientists often ask why so few people vote. But the real mystery is why so many people vote at all. Voting is tedious. It involves shuffling in long lines (very, very long in parts of the USA) through crowded, poorly lit rooms. The chances that an individual’s vote is going to affect the outcome of an election, are less than one in several tens of thousands.  Contemplating these odds, a person might reasonably conclude that voting makes little sense.

Voting, in other words, is a classic collective-action problem. Individuals have little incentive to vote. But if everyone voted, society as a whole would benefit from a government that more accurately reflects public preferences and goals.

Citizens face collective-action problems daily, in virtually every domain of public life. Though many people would naturally prefer not to pay taxes or serve on juries, communities fare better when citizens accept these duties, and societies have developed mechanisms to ensure that they do so.

Our courts don’t rely on volunteers knocking on people’s doors, encouraging them to show up for jury duty, and tax collectors at Revenue Canada don’t waste time trying to design messages or reforms to induce people to voluntarily send in their tax payment checks.

Instead, these collective-action problems are solved through various forms of compulsion: citizens who don’t appear for jury service or pay their taxes on time face fines or other penalties.

Why not compel people to vote as well?   Make voting a universal civic duty.   Just like paying taxes, voting should be an expectation of citizenship: people should be legally compelled to vote and fined if they don’t.

Inadequate participation is a problem for democracy because electoral and policy outcomes do not necessarily represent the will of the public. Society would benefit from universal voter turnout because electoral outcomes would be better, fairer, and more legitimate.  But because individuals don’t have much incentive to vote, the only way to achieve near-universal participation is through some form of compulsion.

The fines would be small (around $20) and election officials COULD waive fines when extenuating circumstances make voting too burdensome. In other countries, such as Australia, modest legal incentives have notably increased participation, ensuring that more than 90 percent of eligible voters participate in all state and federal elections. Working-class citizens were underrepresented in Australian elections before compulsory voting, but when different states implemented the policy between 1914 and 1941, election results and public policies shifted in their favour.

There will be many objections to compulsory voting.   Many will feel that they should have the right to not vote. To be clear, citizens should be compelled to cast a ballot, not that they should be compelled to vote for any candidate. If they would like to vote for “none of the above,” they should have that right. But compulsory voting doesn’t violate civil rights any more than compulsory tax paying, compulsory driving within the speed limit wearing a compulsory seatbelt, or compulsory jury service.

One objection is that if people choose not to vote, perhaps they don’t care, they’re uninformed, or they don’t deserve to have their interests represented. Certainly, many Canadians are uninformed or apathetic about politics, but once you induce people to vote, they become more informed.   So compulsory voting would likely improve the extent to which eligible voters pay attention to politics and hold informed views.

Compulsory voting may sound like a wacky idea to many Canadians. But there was a time when same-sex marriage, legalisation of marijuana and medical assistance in death were also wacky ideas. Canada should seriously discuss compulsory voting as a way to solve a collective-action problem and generate better, fairer, and more legitimate election results and public policies than the ones it now has.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry Mr Chow, but voting is a right if you choose to exercise it.. If you don’t it’s up to you.. We live in a democracy, not a dictatorship( as much as Trump would like it to be one.. Mandatory voting would result in so many spoiled ballots it would be next to impossible to sort out, kinda like what the US is going thru right now..What would you do, make everyone sign their ballot so if it was spoiled the cops would come and pick you up and make you vote again or go to jail ?? By your own stats, half the country would be doing time..

  2. There’s a definite, and likely duplicitous, agenda when compulsory voting is legislated.
    This is one of Trudeau’s goals.
    Compulsory voting is faulty at best – the uninformed voter will either spoil their ballot or vote randomly not knowing who/what they are voting for. This strongly goes against the democratic spirit.
    We should all be concerned with any legislation compelling something that isn’t legislated to prevent harm or protect others.
    Compulsory voting isn’t a “wacky idea”, it’s potentially harmful. There are countries where compulsory voting works and at least as many where it doesn’t work.
    Rather than forcing Canadians to vote under the threat of punishment for not, how about we entice Canadians to vote by giving us something good to vote for?
    The current government promised “sunny days”, but really those days were just more heavily taxed and fraught with more conflicts, violations and broken promises than and previous recorded Canadian governments.

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