- Many countries have trouble getting their citizens to vote during elections.
- Compulsory voting is a method able to increase voter turnout, however, it is only enforced in 10 countries around the globe.
- The reason for this is that many view it as a violation of freedom of speech and religion.
Recently, while chatting with some friends, we stumbled upon the topic of elections. As we were talking, I noticed that out of all the seven countries represented at that table, mine was the only one where voting is compulsory. Now, I always knew before this event that there are some places in the world where voting is optional. I mean, it is hard not to notice when, during every single US presidential election, Instagram and Twitter feeds are filled up with celebrities posting #IVoted to incentivize people to cast their ballots.
Nevertheless, I thought that this was the exception rather than the norm; and as it turns out, I was very much wrong. Out of all the countries in the world, there are only ten in which compulsory voting is enforced. I was very shocked discovering this, because in my country, Ecuador, there are very strict penalizations for those who fail to show up to vote on election day. In fact, the fine for not voting is $45 USD, a high figure when taking into account that the average salary is around 426 USD. Those who refuse to pay are unable to leave the country or get access to multiple public and private procedures. After this discovery I became very interested in the differences between the two approaches, after doing some research here is what I found.
Countries that enforce compulsory voting generally view the election of representatives as a duty or a responsibility rather than a right. The arguments in favor of this perspective are pretty simple. For starters, many claim that mandatory elections increase the general acceptance of the results given that they usually produce a higher voter turnout. For instance, while the United States had an average voter turnout of 55.5% in the last presidential elections, Australia, a country that has implemented mandatory voting since 1923, generally had a turnout of 93%. This means that almost everyone’s or at least the majority of people’s perspective is taken into account on political matters. However, many also argue that compulsory voting fails to increase politically informed citizens and instead boost “Donkey votes”, in which people vote randomly because they are obliged to do so rather than because they are backing someone who they believe in.
Moreover, many see mandatory voting as a method of avoiding “class bias”, given that the elder and wealthier groups in society are more likely to vote than their counterparts. As a result, they tend to be the most addressed on campaigns during the election period. Besides this, It has also been noted that once mandatory voting is implemented, the outcome of elections tend to swing towards the liberal and leftist side. In fact, former president Obama; who considered mandatory voting for the US back in 2015 (after a voter turnout reached a historic low of 36.4%), stated that “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls”. Some academics even claimed that voluntary voting creates a prisoners dilemma situation, in which many refrain from voting thinking that there are enough individuals with their same views and perspectives that will vote in their name, causing groups to become underrepresented. In addition, it has also been argued that forcing someone to vote violates freedom of religion and speech given that this last right inherently incorporates a person’s choice not to do so and that there are some doctrines such as Jehovah Witnesses or Christadelphians who prefer not to participate or remain neutral on political matters. However, this issue can be easily solved by allowing people to cast a blank vote.
It is safe to say that both approaches have arguments in favor of their views. Sure, compulsory voting innately attracts higher voter turnout rates, which means that at least the majority of citizens had a say on the outcome of the elections. However, the benefits that this system brings to society are also limited by the fact that they do not conceive informed voters. So it all comes down to whether a country prefers to take most citizens into account, risking that a high percentage of them may not have all the information about the decision they’re making. Or a low amount of votes, yet more likely cast by politically engaged individuals.