compulsory voting

Mandatory voting is a much-debated topic whenever elections roll around. There are a number of countries around the world that require their citizens to show up at the polls on election day. In this installment of our blog series on voter participation, we discuss the arguments for and against compulsory voting.

In most democracies being able to vote is a hard-won civic right. However, in some countries voting is deemed a civic duty which must be carried out. The degree to which compulsory voting is enforced varies from country to country, with sanctions imposed on non-voters in some parts of the world.

Arguments For Mandatory Voting

The main argument for adopting a compulsory voting system is the boost it gives to voter turnout. Advocates point to waning voter turnout figures and see mandatory voting as the answer. It’s pretty hard to argue with the raw data. The 2016 national election in Australia, where voting is mandatory, recorded a participation rate of 95%. This is a far step from the 2016 US presidential election which saw just 55% of voters turn out. It’s no wonder then that former President Barack Obama described a shift to mandatory voting in the US as being potentially “transformative”.

Such low turnout rates call into question the legitimacy of the entire political system. After all, what right does an elected leader have to govern if most of the electorate didn’t vote for them? Surely in a democracy that is truly governed by and for the people, everyone should have their say in elections. Compulsory voting is therefore viewed by advocates as enhancing democracy.

Other benefits that have been associated with mandatory voting include:

  • providing a political education and a more well-informed electorate
  • the elected body will more accurately reflect the will of the entire electorate
  • it forces governments to take account of the entire electorate when formulating policies
  • election campaigners can focus on policy issues rather than wasting their resources on encouraging participation in the election

Arguments Against Mandatory Voting

On the other hand, opponents of mandatory voting insist that the policy goes against the fundamental democratic notion of freedom. Informed by libertarian thought, the act of forcing people to vote is seen as an undemocratic infringement on personal liberty. From this perspective, the democratic legitimacy of governments elected under compulsory voting comes into question. Proponents of this view argue that higher voter turnout doesn’t add any democratic weight to elections if it is forced upon voters against their will.

Other negative consequences which have been linked to compulsory voting include:

  • it causes an increase in the proportion of invalid votes and donkey votes
  • ill-informed and politically apathetic citizens shouldn’t be forced to vote
  • increasing the number of “safe” electorates, meaning political parties only focus their energies on marginal seats
  • the cost of enforcing compulsory voting can place an unjustified burden on public finances in poorer countries

Next week we continue our blog series on voter participation taking a look at education and registration. Stay tuned!