With voter turnout rates at the lowest levels since World War II in the 2014 US mid-term elections, the subject of compulsory voting has become a topic of conversation and debate once again. Some major countries in the world today already have compulsory voting laws. Over 20 countries, in fact, have a system in places which requires their citizens to both register to vote and show up at their local polling center.
Australia’s voting system is the one that is known the most. If someone is over the age of 18 in Australia, then they must be registered to vote and show up at their polling place on election date. If they do not, then they must prove they were ill or incapable of making it to the polling place or face an extensive fine. These laws were adopted in 1924, with Queensland leading the way with the first compulsory laws in 1915.
Before the compulsory laws, voter turnout hovered around 47%. Today voter turnout in Australia is usually between 94%-96%. There are certainly some advantages to a compulsory system of voting, but there are some disadvantages as well. Let’s take an in-depth look at both sides of the issue.
What Are the Pros of Compulsory Voting?
1. It Becomes Part Of Each Citizen’s Civic Duty
Compulsory voting changes the dynamic in a society. Instead of saying that voting is a civic responsibility, it becomes a civic duty. The process becomes similar to that of jury duty, paying taxes, having health care, or having children attend school. Personal opinions are still allowed with these laws and any valid candidate will still receive a vote, but apathy through not voting no longer is an election.
2. The Majority Will Of the People Can Be Followed
Because a majority of the voters are turning out to cast ballots, the formation of the government can be a more accurate reflection of what the population of any nation wants. In the 2014 US mid-terms, for example, less than 40% of the people voted, giving Republicans their largest majority since 1928. When polled, however, 54% of the American public identify themselves as being Democrats or leaning toward the Democratic views.
3. Policy Formation Cannot Be Run By Special Interests
Compulsory voting mandates that the entire electorate be considered when policies are created and managed. That’s because every voting block has a mandated say in how the government is run. Special interests or the wealthy class cannot overly influence government officials to create beneficial policies that only favor them because the disaffected voters are required by law to come and vote.
4. Issues Become More Important That Voter Relationships Or Voter Encouragement
Politicians in a compulsory voting system don’t have to campaign for the average voter to make it to the polls. They can focus on the issues and make a debate about where to take a country as the primary emphasis of their campaign. This allows the voter to more accurately cast a ballot for a candidate who is likely to support their desires or wishes.
5. It Is Still A System Of Independence
Although voters are compelled to come to their polling place, the votes that they cast are still secret. This means that everyone can vote for whomever they believe is the best candidate or write in a candidate that they believe would be a better choice than those that have their names on the actual ballot.
6. Voting Becomes A Lot Easier
Compulsory voting makes casting a ballot a simple process. Many jurisdictions would allow for pre-poll voting, mail-in ballots, and officials would likely visit hospitals, nursing facilities, and even military bases to make sure that every vote is counted. The nations which have compulsory voting also have election days on the weekend to make sure that most people don’t even need to take time away from work to be able to vote.
What Are the Cons of Compulsory Voting?
1. It Is Still An Ineffective System
Compulsory voting requires voters to show up to the polls, but doesn’t actually require them to cast a meaningful ballot. In effect, it becomes possible for someone to cast a blank ballot because that’s what the law declares needs to be done at minimum. That still means that a person hasn’t effectively voted and everyone’s time ends up being wasted.
2. It Does Not Guarantee A True Reflection Of The Majority
With up to 65% of the population of a country choosing not to vote in any given election, the only real majority there is are people who are either uninterested in politics at best or ignorant about how politicians stand at worst. People who don’t care about their vote or are uninformed tend to vote randomly for people instead because they feel required to vote, which is sometimes called a “donkey” vote.
3. It Takes Money To Enforce The Law
In order to find out who may or may not have broken the compulsory voting laws, it becomes necessary to devote law enforcement resources to discover people who may have tried to circumvent the system. Although fines are often the result of choosing not to vote, resources also have to be devoted to the enforcement of those fines. In the end, that seems to be a lot of trouble to make people do something that they don’t necessarily want to do.
4. It Ignores The Will Of Most Voters
Because everyone is required to vote in an election, politicians in compulsory voting countries tend to focus on the independent, marginal electorates because that’s where the swing votes tend to be. Instead of looking to their primary base of support, they’ll look to the safe singular issues that can guarantee an election. This basically means that instead of gridlock being present in the political system, apathy lock is in place. No profound changes are proposed because that could result in getting booted out of office.
5. It Takes Away The Voice Of The Minorities
In the United States especially, when white voters outnumber all other minority voters, compulsory voting would make it nearly impossible for a dissenting minority voice to be heard if there wasn’t enough white support to make it happen. In effect, it would create a new system of dependence that could even be viewed as “voter slavery” because the minority races would be dependent on “sympathetic” majority race members. Their vote still counts, of course, but it needs help to make an impact.
6. It Could Be Considered Unethical
In any circumstance, compelling people to do something that they don’t want to do can be considered unethical. That’s one of the primary arguments against the enforcement of the Affordable Care Act that was passed and upheld by the Supreme Court in the US. Some people feel like they have a right to decide not to vote and being told that they must vote would be a violation of their rights.
Should Compulsory Voting Be Instituted As a Ruling Standard?
For societies that have compulsory voting, most of the population tends to support the practice. For those that don’t have compulsory voting, the same is also true. In some ways, not much really changes when voters are compelled to the polls. Even if the law requires them to mark a ballot, they can do so in such a fashion that the vote won’t count. That’s just as good as decided not to vote because it sends the same message.
The one area of concern, however, is how this practice treats people in that society. On one hand, you’re saying that you will trust the will of the people who vote under compulsory terms, yet effectively tell them that they are not trusted to decide whether or not voting is right for them. It becomes a numbers game. Higher voter turnout occurs, but the results wind up being similar in many circumstances.
Take the US 2014 mid-terms, for example. If 65% of people didn’t vote, let’s remove the 40% that would vote for their preferred party in a straight-line method. The results would still be the same, but now we’ve got 25% of people who don’t really want any candidate. This means you’ll get random votes, invalid votes, and people willing to pay a fine so that they still don’t have to vote. The end result would typically be a similar result except for the voter turnout percentage.
Yet compulsory voting still gives everyone the chance to make their voice heard and to make their vote count for something. A vote still counts for something, even if that vote is obtained in a way that is different than many traditional methods.
There are definitely some advantages to this system of voting and there are some disadvantages as well. By weighing all the pros and cons of this issue, each community can make the choice that is right for them and decide on their own as to whether or not compulsory voting should be instituted.