Compulsory Voting: Vote or Pay Up

Imagine if you didn’t vote on Election Day. Say you got busy. Or you didn’t like the candidates. Or you happen to believe that your vote doesn’t matter, so why bother.

Then, a week later, you get a letter in the mail saying you’re being fined $20 for not going to the polls.

In some nations, that’s the way it works.

As we mentioned in the previous Collaborative Services blog post, there are a number of concepts that exist or are being debated that could help increase voter turnout in the United States.

The method described above is known as compulsory voting. Jonathon Louth, a political scientist and lecturer at University of Chester in England, has written extensively on it with much of the work being indebted to his collaboration with and the thoughts of Professor Lisa Hill from the University of Adelaide, Australia. Dr. Louth is from Australia, where the compulsory voting bill was first  introduced to parliament in 1924 and the first compulsory election took place in 1925 causing an immediate impact on voter turn out. In terms of registered voters the previous election in 1922 had just under 60% voter turn out. The 1925 election raised voter turn out to more than 91%. Since then turn out has never dropped below 90%.

Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

He embraces the concept, saying it increases voter participation, particularly among those who might not normally vote. Compulsory voting also has its detractors who argue that the decision to vote or not should be up to the individual.

We welcome his thoughts and insights on this topic.

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As a public involvement firm, we care a lot about voting because it’s an essential way to participate in decisions. Here, voting is voluntary. Where is voting mandatory/compulsory?

It all depends on what is considered  to be a compulsory voting regime. There are certainly quite a number of countries that might make reference to the obligation of citizens to vote, but the issue is one of effective enforcement. Some 32 countries are often cited as employing compulsory voting (CV), but this number is a distortion.  Often, there is no enforcement (Greece, Thailand, Bolivia etc.)  or it is not effectively enforced (Cyprus, Turkey or Argentina) or only a region within a country employs CV (Switzerland). The actual numbers of countries that effectively enforce CV is quite small. Two of the best examples are Australia and Belgium (although Belgium is not as vigorous with enforcement as it once was). Prior to its abandonment of CV in 1967, the Netherlands was another outstanding example. It is worth noting the decline in turnout in the Netherlands since its abandonment (and Venezuela, too).

Credit: The Small Opinion

Mandatory/compulsory voting is thought to enhance democracy. How so? And, is that always the case?

For some people, there seems to be something ‘undemocratic’ about compelling people to vote. People will even suggest that if one has the right to vote, then it stands to reason that we should equally have the right to not vote. Yet rights are not something that can be simply ‘inverted’; they do not come with an equivalent and equal inverse proposition. One has the right to not be killed, abused, raped, and, at the less extreme end, the right to education, freedom of association and so on and so forth. It is a little silly to suggest that these rights are not fully realized or are compromised if the inverse is not also true (i.e. the right to be killed, raped or denied education).

It’s also worth noting that this system is really about compulsory attendance. Given that it is a secret ballot, a voter need only show up (although technically the legislation refers to the requirement to vote). They can, if they so choose, cast a blank or spoiled ballot. There is even an emerging campaign in Australia for a ‘none of the above’ option, so that a protest vote can be properly accounted for (I believe at least one, maybe two, U.S. states do this?)

Credit: Meetup

What CV does do is to help foster a more representative and legitimate legislative body. CV promotes equality and is one of the great ‘levellers’. The groups who are most likely to not vote include those from non-English speaking backgrounds, minority groups, socially vulnerable individuals, the young, those with lower levels of education and those from lower socio-economic groups. CV brings out the vote and encourages participation with the political process; in doing so some research indicates that individuals do attempt to become more informed about politics and it fosters a sense of civic duty and participation.
Further, it holds politicians to account – they are less able to ignore voices that might not normally get heard. It also challenges and refocuses political campaigns; campaigns do not have to focus on ‘getting the vote out’. The voters will be attending, the political parties have to work out how to get them to vote for their candidates. This means resources need to be directed to the politics of the issues that resonate with a broadened electorate. In respect to the U.S. electoral college, the introduction of CV may well impact the number and nature of battleground states.

Credit: WDDE 91.1 FM

You have written about compulsory voting in your country, Australia. What is the voter turn out? What happens if someone doesn’t vote?

Voter turnout in Australia is exceptionally high. In terms of registered voters (RV) it is well over 90%, often around the 95% mark. If looking at the voting age population (VAP), it sits around 80 and up to 85%. Compare this to U.S. Presidential elections and you are looking at an average 65 to 75%, but for VAP figures you are looking more at figures of around 50 – 55% (although the 2008 election pushed to nearly 58%). These figures for the U.S. are also indicative of a voter registration problem.

If you fail to vote in Australia then you are fined AU $20.00. (About $17 in U.S. dollars) Quite a small fine when compared to something like a speeding ticket. It is also quite simple to avoid the fine by providing the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) with a reasonable excuse for not voting (illness, out of the country etc.). A very small number of people have been gaoled, but these are individuals who refused to pay the fine in a very public manner, and then the AEC was obliged to take the individuals to court. The court ordered the individuals to pay, they still refused and consequently were gaoled for contempt of court (not for not voting). In the UK, the equivalent would be the ‘metric martyrs’. These were shopkeepers etc. who refused to show weights in measure etc. in imperial and the metric system.

The importance of the fine is to ensure that the voting habit is maintained. People generally do not vote to avoid the fine, as voting has become very much a part of the political fabric.

Because it’s compulsory, is election day in Australia celebrated or is there a sense of civic pride in casting a ballot?

Very much so. But this is also due to the electoral system which is a hybrid with a U.S. style senate and a UK Westminster lower house. This is coupled with the alternative vote (AV) and single transferable vote (STV) systems which means that voting is not only compulsory but one is expected to do so preferentially – that is listing who they would like to vote for in order of preference. This creates a very dynamic situation around polling booths.

Credit: Foreign Policy Journal

What forms of communication and public involvement are used to educate citizens about voting in countries with compulsory voting? When does this education start?

In the Australian system it starts from a young age, but not driven by government campaigns etc.  It has become cultural – voting is established as a low cost civic duty that everyone ‘just does’. You pay taxes, stop at red lights, … and vote. Although it is something that is certainly raised in social studies type classes in both primary and secondary school.

In the lead up to elections the AEC will run campaigns in print, radio, television and social networks to remind people of the need to register, to vote and how to vote.

The children of 6P Hamilton South learn about voting at the Australian Electoral Commission division of Canberra.
(Credit: 6P Hamilton South)

The United States typically has a voter turnout around 50%. Are there lessons the U.S. can learn from country’s that require voting to increase our voter turn out, yet still keep voting voluntary?

There are many things that will improve turnout within an electoral system. The key is to increase the perceived worth of an individual’s vote; the idea that their vote my actually make some impact. This can be done by moving away from first-past-the-post to proportional systems, it can be improved by having a unicameral and unitary political system (one house – U.S. has two; and one national electorate  – the U.S. is federal). Holding the election on weekends or on a public holiday, extending the voting period. Allowing for automatic or easier voter registration. As you will note nearly all of these scenarios do not describe and are unlikely to ever describe the U.S. system. CV is an instant and the most effective means to immediately effect turnout and to engage a wider and more diverse number of citizens.

Are people more aware and engaged about the candidates and key issues under compulsory voting? Or because voting is mandatory do you find that it causes the opposite?

I’ve touched upon this above. Although there are arguments that CV just forces the apathetic and unknowledgeable to vote (random votes and in an uneducated manner is the insinuation), there is no convincing evidence to suggest that people do not become more engaged because of compulsory voting. Admittedly the number of spoiled ballots increases under CV, but much of this – as has been shown by examination of ballots – is due to mistakes made on the ballots as opposed to a deliberate attempt to cast spoiled ballots (remembering that Australia’s AV and STV systems are more complicated than a simple first-past-the-post system). Adding to the democratic dimension of CV a minority of the spoiled ballots are protests votes, with the voter expressing their dissatisfaction on the ballot paper.

What is evident is that political debates have to take into account a broadened electorate. The AEC goes to great lengths to make sure that everybody is given the opportunity to participate – including going to great lengths so that remote indigenous groups have the opportunity to register, vote, and have an understanding of the process. (However, it was not until 1967 that a referendum gave all Aborigines the right to vote.)

What is heartening is that the mere compulsion means that the majority of people will take the time to consider their political position.

Can you provide an example of countries where you believe compulsory voting is done wrong or being abused?

Not abused because of CV per se. Certainly in some less developed democracies corruption and vote rigging can occur – and some of those countries in question will claim to be employ CV. But this is not an issue that relates directly to or is a consequence of CV.

However, CV can be poorly executed – it is most effective when it is properly supported with appropriate (minor) sanctions for not voting. Effective education and a willingness to promote the importance of voting as a civic duty needs to be a part of this process too.

What role or effect does changing technology play in compulsory voting?

The role of technology in respect to voting more generally is having an ever greater impact. This is especially true of e-voting, e-referenda, outreach and education, voting machines etc. However, the link to CV is tangential – technology can assist with reaching and informing voters (reminding them of their obligation). It can play a role in how people actually physically or virtually cast their vote. It can also play a role in how parties and candidates may try to reach as many within their electorate as possible.

Credit: Meta Q

Any last thoughts?

That all said, there are still many similarities between CV and voluntary systems. One shouldn’t suggest that CV is a panacea or that it is a variable from which many vagaries that constitute modern elections might be compared. What it does offer is a direct intervention to deal with the democratic deficit that is evident when one looks at falling turnout rates of many developed democracies throughout the world.

CV is simple. It increases turnout, it widens participation, and it helps to develop and maintain a sense of civic duty.

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Thank you Dr. Louth for sharing your thoughts on compulsory voting. Increasing engagement is a mission of our firm, so we find such topics fascinating. To hear more from Dr. Louth follow him on Twitter @JonathonLouth.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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