I’d always assumed that compulsory voting was a bad idea, mostly for the sorts of reasons underlying argument ‘A4’ below, but reading my brother’s honours thesis on this topic immediately changed my mind. I’ll be drawing heavily from that work in what follows…
All the evidence shows that compulsory voting is a sure-fire way to significantly increase voter turnout, and it may be the only means available for halting the continuing trend of declining turnout. Such consequences would be beneficial for several reasons:
1) Low voter turnout tends to produce unequal representation, favouring the rich, well-educated, and older people. As V.O. Key (1949, 527) wrote, “The blunt truth is that politicians and officials are under no compulsion to pay much heed to classes and groups of citizens that do not vote.” Compulsory voting would thus help ensure that the interests of politically disengaged groups (typically: the poor, uneducated, and youth) are not ignored.
2) Civic participation in one arena may stimulate broader participation and interest in other political/civic activities.
3) Compulsory voting might also serve to improve the culture of politics, as campaigners no longer need to worry about “mobilizing” their base. This reduces the cost of campaigning, and thus the role of money in politics, which can only be a good thing. Politicians can instead focus on explaining their policies and trying to convince undecided voters to their point of view. This would encourage more moderate discourse and rhetoric, and discourage aggravation or extremism, as the need to avoid alienating undecided voters is at less risk of being outweighed by the need to “get out the vote” by rousing the passions of existing supporters and hardliners.
4) The previous two points work together to create a more politically informed electorate. Responsible citizens may feel obligated to become more informed before voting, and campaigners have more incentive to provide such information, in their bid to persuade the electorate to support their candidate’s policies.
As for the main arguments against compulsory voting:
A1) Individuals have a right to express their political dissatisfaction.
But compulsory voting can easily accommodate this by allowing votes of ‘no confidence’, or allowing voters to submit blank ballot papers.
A2) Such compulsion is a violation of individual freedom.
But the imposition of voting is very small compared to the social benefits noted above. Appeals to principle are especially implausible here because we already accept much greater impositions, e.g. jury duty and taxation, as legitimate. Besides, compulsory voting is a natural extension of New Zealand’s present practice of compulsory electoral registration.
A3) Some might object to the paternalistic nature of the first ‘pro-compulsion’ argument above, since the compulsion is not just for the public good, but particularly for the good of the groups that would otherwise not vote.
But some political philosophers argue that coercive paternalism can be justified if the beneficiary reasonably trusts the paternalist. And although coercive paternalism tends to undermine trust, this might be counterbalanced by other “trustworthiness-enhancing conditions of government”. Promotion of democratic participation indicates the government’s trustworthiness, and thus coercive paternalism directed towards this end may be intrinsically more legitimate than other forms of paternalism.
A4) One might deny that low voter turnout is a problem in any case. Common sense suggests that compelling ill-informed citizens to vote reduces the chances of electing the candidates that truly are best.
But this rests upon two false assumptions. First, it assumes that ignorance is fixed and static. Even if initial elections contain many ill-considered votes, recall that compulsory voting would, arguably, lead to a more politically informed electorate in the long term. Secondly, the argument assumes that most people vote altruistically. But if people instead vote on narrower values (whether favouring their own interests or those of an exclusive group or sub-community to which they belong), as seems more likely, then the problem of unequal representation looms large. Even ill-informed voters could help remedy this problem, as (to quote my brother) “votes compelled from disengaged voters are likely to parallel votes from politically aware members of the community who operate in similar life circles,” and thus have a good chance of accurately representing their interests.
A5) Finally, it might be thought that compulsory voting would be unpopular. (It would be rather ironic if the politicians who introduced it ended up being voted out by a swell of resentful disengaged voters!)
But in fact the evidence suggests the very opposite. The Fabian Society note that “Since 1943 - when the earliest opinion poll was conducted on the subject - never fewer than six out of ten voters have supported compulsory voting in Australia. Not only that, but also those who favour it have stronger views than those who are opposed.”
In summary, then, there’s much to be said in favour of compulsory voting, and not much that holds up against it. Just for fun, let’s put it to the vote: who thinks we should make this compulsory?