Compulsory voting seems like an easy fix to a widespread problem: how to improve democratic participation. Making voting mandatory is seen as a means of improving the legitimacy and responsiveness of government, reducing opportunities for electoral malpractice, and enhancing citizen engagement with the democratic process.
The decision by the Gujarat governor to sanction the provision of compulsory voting under the Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill 2009, has brought the question of compulsory voting back to the electoral reform agenda. When the original proposal was introduced in 2009, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, writing in this newspaper (‘Acts of choice’, IE, December 22, 2009, iexp.in/sYk124693), provided a review of the principles that might be used to justify some measure of compulsory voting, but noted that such measures seemed poorly suited to the context of Indian democracy and smacked of “democratic paternalism”. He concluded: “Voting must remain an act of choice, not propelled by coercion or inducement.”
Rather than reiterate the strong theoretical arguments that challenge the use of state compulsion to force people to go to the polls, I want to examine some of the evidence from countries around the world that have used compulsory voting to see what comparative experience tells us about the practical implications.
The first thing to note is that the use of compulsory voting measures is relatively rare, with only some 14 countries having compulsory voting requirements that are actually enforced. The most prominent examples are Australia, Belgium, Brazil and Peru. A report by the respected International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance suggested that compulsory voting was likely to become a “dying phenomenon” in western Europe. Many countries that have had some form of compulsory voting have abandoned the measure, or stopped trying to enforce it. In Austria, where it was abandoned at a national level in 1982, it was described by interior ministry officials as unpopular and “almost impossible to enforce”. Spain, Italy and the Netherlands have all had provisions for compulsory voting at some point, but decided to make voting optional. In recent years, Chile (2012), Fiji (2014), and Greece (2000) have either removed compulsory voting requirements or simply stopped enforcing them.
Thailand introduced compulsory voting in 1997 as part of a wholesale constitutional reform package that sought to address political instability and rampant corruption. In particular, compulsory voting was seen as a way to combat vote-buying and reduce the influence of “black money” in elections. The measure had little apparent effect — in the 2001 elections, allegations of vote-buying and electoral irregularities caused its election commission to hold fresh elections in over 60 constituencies, the democratic legitimacy of the government was undermined, and further political turmoil led to a military coup in 2006.
Studies of the wider effects of compulsory voting suggest that compelling people to turn out to vote does not increase levels of political knowledge, make voters more likely to feel that their vote makes a difference, or improve perceptions of the quality of representation. As such, compulsory voting should not be seen as a measure that will have a big influence on the quality of political engagement and participation.
But surely compulsory voting increases turnout? Here the evidence seems clear. In a comprehensive comparative study, Harvard professor Pippa Norris showed that average voter turnout in countries with some form of compulsory voting requirement was 5.4 per cent higher than in countries where voting was optional
However, there are important qualifications to reading this as a simple and clear justification for compulsory voting. The first is that the severity and strict enforcement of sanctions is key to substantially increasing turnout. Second, even in countries with strict enforcement of compulsory voting, turnout is not universal and sanctions have to be imposed on non-voters. Third, imposing penalties on those who do not turn out to vote provides incentives for people to avoid appearing on the electoral register. And fourth, many of those who feel compelled to turn out to vote actually spoil their ballots or cast their votes randomly.
Compulsory voting may compel people to go to the polling booth, but it does not ensure that they cast their vote in a meaningful way. In Australia, concern about what is known as the “donkey vote”, whereby people simply choose the easiest option (for instance, the first name on a polling machine), led to the introduction of random ballot ordering in 1984. Votes for “none of the above” or spoilt ballots are much more prevalent in systems with compulsory voting.
When electoral participation is measured in terms of the voting-age population rather than using those on the electoral register as a base, the improvement in turnout in countries using compulsory voting falls to 1.9 per cent. This suggests that the penalties associated with failure to turn out to vote provide a clear incentive for people who are qualified to vote to disappear from the electoral register. This provides a more insidious motive for the introduction of compulsory voting. As Norris notes: “Mandatory voting regulations may be genuine attempts to increase widespread public involvement in the political process, or they may be employed by less democratic regimes to compel the public to vote, in the attempt to legitimise one-party contests.”
In Singapore, generally accepted to fall below the standards of a functioning democratic system, compulsory voting is part of an electoral framework that perpetuates one-party rule. The sanction for non-voting is withdrawal from the electoral register, removing the right to vote from those who do not wish to participate in what is largely seen as an unfair electoral process.
In Gujarat, the legislation for compulsory voting does not specify the sanctions that would be imposed on those not turning out to vote. However, speaking in Ahmedabad in April this year, L.K. Advani proposed that “those who do not vote should be barred from voting in future”. This raises the unpleasant prospect of the solution to non-voting being to remove people from the electoral process, surely something that should concern those who believe in fundamental democratic rights.
The writer, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Sheffield, is author or ‘Standing at the Margins: Representation and Electoral Reservation in India’