Should Voting Be Mandatory?

Updated: Nov 14


That’s the 1 million dollar question. Nowadays, in most western societies, our democratic system sees voting as a right. It is up to each individual (who of course is eligible to vote) to take the decision to actually put a ballot in the urn. But what happens if they don’t ?



Each democratic system has set different conditions when holding elections. Generally speaking, a voting citizen actually has three options. The first one is the simplest – to go vote for one of the candidates in the given election. The second option is to place a blank ballot in the box, in this case it would be counted as a “blank vote” but still counts as voting. The final and third option is not to place a ballot altogether, for whichever reason. As many eligible voters see voting as optional, and abstain, there are three main explanations to explain voter apathy: resignation, protest, and content (2). This option is the most dangerous for democratic systems as it is the uncertainty which has the possibility to kill democracies. Indeed, the latter is based on the participation of the people and the legitimization of their opinion. So how can we legitimize the decisions made during elections if fewer and fewer people vote? How can we talk about a representation of the people, if 1/3 of the population didn’t vote?


There is a declining voter turnout - around 20% since the 1980s in Europe, which contains the largest numbers of established democracies (6). Frankly, this is quite worrying. In that sense, shouldn’t voting be seen as a duty to one’s country? A responsibility maybe for all ancestors who fought for the possibility of choosing ? To settle the debate, let’s establish pros and cons.


Pros


There would be an incrementally higher turnout in elections. In countries which adopted compulsory voting like Australia for example, the voter turnout is at 94% (3). Not surprising given that the lack of voting is punished by a 20$ fine, which can go up to 55$ in certain scenarios (1).


Compulsory voting also obliges each citizen to form a political opinion. In the situation where one is forced to vote, might as well vote for a candidate of your choice. So, each voter has to inform themselves, evaluate their options and form a political opinion. It could inspire especially young voters to take part in the debate, and learn about the issues of their respective countries (4). As such, rendering voting compulsory - notably the lack of choice in this matter would also compel voters to actually get involved. And this would respond effectively to the threat of non-voters in a democracy. Taking the example of Australia again – and the testimony of an Australian - citizens tend to have higher levels of trust and satisfaction in their government (4) because all Australians take part in selecting their representatives. It would strengthen democracy and the government, to hear equally from every citizen.



Cons


However, there are numerous disadvantages, which present ethical challenges. There is the idea that compulsory voting violates personal freedom, as voting would not be a choice anymore. Also, as mentioned previously, abstaining from voting can also be a political statement, a way to show discontent and frustration.


The solution for the latter is not compulsory voting. On the contrary, it would probably deepen the issue, creating even more frustration from those already resisting the system. Fines and penalties are not useful to respond to the deep-rooted issue at heart. On the other hand, it could dampen the opinions of the majority – uninformed voters can end up voting randomly (5) and thus, adds an additional concern.


So, isn't it time to find solutions ?



My two cents on the matter


A compromise between both parties would be to find a way to take into account “the blank vote”. In France, blank votes are counted but not recognized. Therefore, a person who made the effort to cast their empty envelope has the same impact as a person who has complete voting apathy (7). However, the difference between the two is the underlying problem. The Netherlands and Spain on the other hand, do take into account the blank vote and count it in the percentages (7). In Switzerland, the blank vote is only counted in the first round, but not in the second. In Mongolia, if the blank votes reached more than 10% and no candidate obtains an absolute majority, then new elections must be held with new candidates. (7) Another alternative would be to include a “none of the above” option in the ballot. Fun Fact: In Canada they opt for a preferential voting (8). In this way, they are changing the framing of the question itself. It is not “Who do you want as president ?” but it becomes “who do you want least?” – which renders voting more legitimate in a sense? (which pushes for physically voting, and cannot vote black)


Also, how about facilitating the process? To put it grossly, nowadays people are lazier and the voting process is not yet flexible enough. Indeed, there are various procedures in place to be able to vote, but numerous citizens don’t take them into consideration because they necessitate time and effort. In that sense, if one is abroad on election day, their automatic reflex is not to vote altogether instead of having to go to the police station or embassy and file a document. In today’s society where everyone is connected via technology, isn't it time to adapt the voting procedures and introduce online voting ?




Works Cited:

  1. https://www.elections.wa.gov.au/vote/failure-vote

  2. https://www.polyas.de/blog/en/increasing-voter-turnout/non-voters-threaten-democracy

  3. https://classroommagazines.scholastic.com/election/civics-in-action/voting--should-voting-be-mandatory.html

  4. https://www.ecasd.us/getattachment/Northstar-Middle-School/Staff/DeAnna-Slaggie/Social-Studies/Should-Voting-Be-Mandatory-article.pdf

  5. https://www.fairvote.org/the_pros_and_cons_of_requiring_citizens_to_vote

  6. https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/publications/voter-turnout-trends-around-the-world.pdf

  7. https://www.lemonde.fr/en/les-decodeurs/article/2022/04/12/what-is-the-purpose-of-a-blank-vote-how-does-it-differ-from-a-spoiled-vote-or-an-abstention_5980314_8.html

  8. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-electoral-reform-preferential-ballot-1.3811555


About the author:

After having studied political science in rainy UK, I am currently pursuing my studies in sunny Madrid. I love dancing and painting (even it’s no Picasso) and aspiring to take part in positive societal change.


Credits:

  • drawing by@pius.ko


#vote #democracy #turnout #elections #threat #participation #blank #mandatory #online


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