Compulsory voting – an analysis

November 21, 2012

With great power comes great responsibility – Uncle Ben, Spiderman

This is one of my favourite quotes and I think it applies here. The gift of the Greeks, Democracy, is very old and highly experimented concept. The fact that almost all Democracies vary in their implementation is a testimony to this. But the core values of a Democracy remain the same everywhere. In the Athenian Democracy (One of the first and most well documented Democracy) it was held that every citizen has a duty to participate in decision-making. The key word here is “duty” and not “a right”. This core value has is the basis on which Democracy as a concept grew. This value is central to the success of any form of Democracy else the “people’s power” will never be expressed. Without the participation of the people there can be no legitimacy to the power conferred upon a representative.

The average voter turnout in India is around 55% and it was 58% in the 2008 General Elections. Before analysing this lets talk about the significance of voter turnout. There has been a lot of debate about the meaning of higher or lower voter turnout. High voter turnout is often considered to be desirable, but many argue that it might be coerced, fabricated or due to threat of violence like in 2005 Iraq elections or the 2002 Saddam Hussein’s referendum claiming 100% participation. On the other hand, low turnout is a reflection of indifference by the public and may not accurately reflect the “will of the people”. However, it has been argued low turnout reflects the contentment of the public about the likely winners, so as long as there is Right to vote a low turnout is still legitimate. These arguments made by experts are in effort to generalise things across all cultures. But, there is always local factors which will decide the optimum turnout required to get a legitimate government. I am no expert but I think 55% is hardly that number. Another concern is the socio-economic status of the voters, i.e., their income and their literacy. Some statistics might help us in further discussion

In 1988 the voter turnout was 62% but the breakup of the population was as follows. Non-literate voter turnout was 57%, Up to middle school voters turnout was 83%, College educated voters turnout was 57% and Post-graduate voters turnout was 41%. This has not changed even today for example, in the National Election Study findings as reported in Alam (2004), the average turnout amongst the college educated in the 1971 elections was 61% This was 6% above the national average turnout of 55%. For the same elections, the average turnout reported for the non-literate was 51.5%, 3.5% below the national average turnout of 55%. This had changed in the 1996 elections with the college educated voters reporting a turnout of 55% (2% less than 1988 election as mentioned above). This was 5% below the national average turnout of 60%, where as for the same elections the turnout reported by the non-literate respondents was 60.5%, 0.5% above the national average turnout of 55%.

This trend is suggesting that as literacy is increasing the voter turnout is decreasing. Turning to the debate about the voter turnout, here in India there is no dictator like coercion or threat of violence. The cases of poll booth capture and rowdy elements forcing people to vote for them are region specific and very few to become a major factor. The other argument was that people are content with the likely winners so they wont vote. The public opinion about politics and politicians leads us to believe in the contrary. I would deny even this argument and conclude that people do not vote because of indifference and disenchantment. There is no real motivation in the public to vote.

One more statistic to consider here is that in any given State there are on average 3 parties at least contesting elections. In some States like Manipur, Goa, Himachal Pradesh there are mainly two political parties. Where as Andhra Pradesh as 6 parties, Tamil Nadu, Assam Bihar have 4 parties and Maharashtra has 6 parties. So a national average of 3 candidates per constituency can be safely made. So, to win an election that candidate has to get 1/3rd plus one vote of the 55% of the voters who have turned up to vote, which is about 18.5% of the total electorate. Even if only two candidates are contesting you will need only 28% of the total electorate to win. Clearly this will not reflect the majority in any way. Besides, it is easy to coerce such a small percentage of people by various means (money, caste, religion, language, force, etc). Hence my argument, low voter turnout in India is a sign of bad Democratic practices.

Once we have established that voter turnout is important, we can now proceed to the central argument of this article, Compulsory Voting. A word of caution though. The reasons behind low voter turnout are very complex and will take many pages to discuss. I will discuss the compulsory voting not as the solution but rather give the positives and negatives. I will try to shed light on the complex problems while I discuss this main issue.

Compulsory voting is not a new Idea. There are many countries that have enforced it. They are Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Luxembourg, Nauru, Peru, Singapore and Uruguay. Schaffhausen, a canton (like a State) in Switzerland has also enforced compulsory voting. Lets see what are the arguments for this system

  • There is a high level of legitimacy to the elected candidate. He does not under-represent any section of the society because almost everyone has voted and different sections (economic and social) of people give power to this representative which would mean that he would not be biased towards one particular group, say his caste or religion.
  • It can be argued that due to compulsory voting the influence of external factors such as weather, transport, restrictive employers in villages, etc will be minimised. Countries with compulsory voting generally hold elections on a Saturday or Sunday. Postal and pre-poll voting is provided to people who cannot vote on polling day, and mobile voting booths may also be taken to old age homes and hospitals to cater for immobilized citizens. Belgian voters can vote in an embassy if they are abroad or can empower another voter to cast the vote in their name; the voter must give a “permission to vote” and carry a copy of the eID card and their own on the actual elections.
  • If voters do not want to support any given choice, they may cast blank votes or, if provided, choose “None of the Above” option. This ensures there is no possibility that the person has been intimidated or prevented from voting should they wish to. The Election Commission of India told the Supreme Court in 2009 that it wishes to add such an option but the government is generally opposed to this. The “Right to Reject”, though looks logical, has practical problems. There are many variations and in one if the none of the above is 50% of the total voter turnout then the elections must be held again. But given the mentality of Indians and their attitude towards politics they might purposefully vote None of the above because they were forced to vote in the first place. Careful debate is necessary in this case. This article gives a lot to think about.
  • Compulsory voting may encourage voters to research the candidates’ political positions more thoroughly. We have become so lazy and detached from politics that we don’t even know who are contesting from our constituencies. Hence, if voting is compulsory at least an effort will be made to know about the candidates and many people will engage is discussions about the merits of each candidate. Since they are voting anyway, they will at least try to vote for the better person
  • A result of this setup is that it is therefore more difficult for extremist or special interest groups to vote themselves into power or to influence mainstream candidates. The logic here is that since everyone will vote, you cannot win an election based on just one group of people. Hence, your election propaganda will have to include a broad base. Hence you will be unable to play divide and rule card as easily as you used to. This will lead to greater integration of the population because that will be in the interest of the politician. This might also reduce the role of money in elections.
  • The increased participation in voting will in some way motivate many to engage in other political activities and take interest in the National matters and not just be a mute spectator. It acts like civil education and political stimulation, which creates a better informed population.

Coming to the arguments against the system,

  • Voting, it is argued, is more of a right than a duty. It is argued that compulsory voting may infringe on other rights of the citizens such as religious rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses allow them to practice their religion. In their religion they are not to involve in politics and forcing them to vote would be equivalent to taking away their rights. However, an exception can always be made in such cases while forming the law. Or they can always use blank vote to escape from such a predicament.
  • Most US legal scholars argue that right to speech and expression also inherently includes the right to not speak and subsequently the right to NOT vote. However, in the Indian constitution every fundamental right is accompanied by reasonable restrictions on these rights. Meaning that under certain “reasonable” conditions one must give up their fundamental right to the “greater good”. Same concept can be applied to this argument too.
  • Donkey votes. As mentioned above, people may vote at random simply to fulfill legal requirements either because they have no interest or they do not have any preference. Donkey votes may account for 1-2 % of the votes in this system, which may affect the electoral process. Similarly, citizens may vote with a complete absence of knowledge of any of the candidates or deliberately skew their ballot to slow the polling process or disrupt the election.
  • Principled non-voters. A group of people who see the government as “gang of thieves writ large” (Murray Rothbard) will not vote on principle.
  • In general, this system is seen by many as a coercion and hence against the democratic principles. Former Australian opposition leader, Mark Latham, urged Australians to hand in blank votes for the 2010 election. He stated the government should not force citizens to vote or threaten them with a fine.

After seeing the various arguments we will quickly go over the checks on the people who will not vote. We can look at the various countries who follow the system. Belgian voters who repeatedly fail to vote in elections may be subject to disenfranchisement, meaning that they will lose the right to vote. Singapore voters who fail to vote in a general election or presidential election will be subjected to disenfranchisement until a valid reason is given or a fine is paid.Goods and services provided by public offices may be denied to those failing to vote in Peru and Greece. In Brazil, a person who fails to vote in an election is are barred from obtaining a passport until after they have voted in the two most recent elections. This method might be particularly effective given that Brazil too is a developing nation. If a Bolivian voter fails to participate in an election, the person may be denied withdrawal of the salary from the bank for three months. Other countries impose a nominal fine for non-voters. This method of penalties does give support to the argument that this system is coercive. But this must be seen as a positive motivator and there should be the option to register a blank vote which will make sure you are not coerced into choosing a candidate whom you don’t approve of.

Also, there can be legitimate reasons to not being able to vote. In Australia and Brazil, providing a legitimate reason for not voting (such as being sick or outside the country) is accepted. In Argentina, those who were ill on voting day are excused by requesting a doctor to prove their condition; those over 500 km (310 mi) away from their voting place are also excused by asking for a certificate at a police station near where they are. Such measures will save people who have genuine reasons. Thus the laws must be carefully drafted taking into the account every possible scenario. We can use the experience of the countries who have implemented this system and implement it with context sensitivity.

In conclusion I say this – This is not the best system to counter the problem of voters’ motivational issues. But this has produced good results in terms of voter turnout which averages about 90% in the countries with compulsory voting. Taking the immediate need to reform the attitudes of citizens towards politics and the above mentioned benefits like increased involvement of public in politics and minimization of role of money and vote bank politics, this system can help us. This will also sort out other related problems like names missing from electoral rolls, logistical factors that prevent people from voting, etc. As an experiment this can be introduced in the Local Government elections like Village Panchayat and Municipal Corporation elections. This would act as a testing ground and will also improve our responses to the general and state level elections.