Universal suffrage is today considered a sine qua non of democratic rule. But what about universal participation? Should the right to vote be complemented with a legal duty to exercise it to assure this goal? While the social norm of voting may be said to exist in many democracies, few have elevated it to a legal citizen duty. Nevertheless, it is an option available to new democracies and worth contemplating as a means to assure high levels of voting, which is likely to enhance the legitimacy of representative institutions and of the political system generally.
Although high levels of turnout can also be found under voluntary voting, there is little doubt that compulsory voting laws are quite effective in raising levels of participation in the countries that have them.
A survey reveals some of the pro’s and con’s of this issue as follows:
In all democracies around the world voter apathy is highest among the poorest and most excluded sectors of society. Since they do not vote the political parties do not create policies for their needs, which leads to a vicious circle of increasing isolation. By making the most disenfranchised vote the major political parties are forced to take notice of them.
This idea is nonsense. Political parties do try and capture the ‘working-class’ vote. Low turnout is best cured by more education, for example, civics classes could be introduced at school. In addition, the inclusion of these ‘less-interested’ voters will increase the influence of spin as presentation becomes more important. It will further trivialize politics and bury the issues under a pile of hype.
A high turnout is important for a proper democratic mandate and the functioning of democracy. In this sense voting is a civic duty like Jury service. Jury service is compulsory in order that the courts can function properly and is a strong precedent for making voting compulsory.
Just as fundamental as the right to vote in a democracy is the right not to vote. Every individual should be able to choose whether or not they want to vote. Some people are just not interested in politics and they should have the right to abstain from the political process. It can also be argued that it is right that voices of those who care enough about key issues to go and vote deserve to be heard above those who do not care so strongly. Any given election will function without an 100% turnout; a much smaller turnout will suffice. The same is not true of juries which do require an 100% turnout all of the time! However, we can take a more general view by noting that even in a healthy democracy it is not surprising people should not want to do jury service because of time it takes, therefore it is made compulsory. However, in a healthy democracy people should want to vote. If they are not voting it indicates there is a fundamental problem with that democracy; forcing people to vote cannot solve such a problem. It merely causes resentment.
The right to vote in a democracy has been fought for throughout modern history. In the last century alone the soldiers of numerous wars and the suffragettes of many countries fought and died for enfranchisement. We should respect their sacrifice by voting.
The failure to vote is a powerful statement, since it decreases turnout and that decreases a government’s mandate. By forcing those who do not want to vote to the ballot box, a government can make its mandate much larger than the people actually wish it to be. Those who fought for democracy fought for the right to vote not the compulsion to vote.
People who know they will have to vote will take politics more seriously and start to take a more active role.
People who are forced to vote will not make a proper considered decision. At best they will vote randomly which disrupts the proper course of voting. At worst they will vote for extreme parties as happened in Australia recently.
Postal and proxy voting is available for those who are otherwise busy. In addition, when Internet voting becomes available in a few years everyone will be able to vote from their own home.
Many people don’t vote because they are busy and cannot take the time off. Making voting compulsory will not get these people to the ballot box if they are actually unable to do so.
Apart from these, when we specifically talk of our country, what we find is that there seems to be a dearth of well educated and clean politicians who deserve to be voted for. The youth yearns to question the government about the process of electing the head of the country. One could argue that voting be made compulsory if and only if he gets the right to vote for his countries president and prime minister so that knowledgeable and clean politicians like Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam be the among the leaders of the nation so as to head towards development.
It should be noted that mandatory voting will in all likelihood increase the percentage of invalid ballots (donkey votes) due to deliberate spoiling or casting of blank ballots as a form of protest. But this may not be a persuasive argument against mandatory voting laws for two reasons. First, evidence indicates that the increase in turnout exceeds the increase in invalid ballots so that there are net gains in participation. Second, even invalid ballots can play a useful function. Indeed, under a compulsory voting regime the casting of an invalid ballot may become an additional electoral choice option that carries a political message (a vote for none-of-the-above, as it were). It is certainly much easier to interpret than mere abstention because it requires a positive act, whereas abstention constitutes a mere failure to participate. Moreover, a ballot spoiler would still be a participant operating within the system, using the ballot as a means to communicate disaffection. In conclusion one can say that making any activity compulsory nation-wide should be accompanied by guaranteed or well predicted evolutions and some alterations in the system as it is only then the citizens may understand the importance of the issue.
The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz
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