Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Compulsory Voting

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?


  1. "“votes compelled from disengaged voters are likely to parallel votes from politically aware members of the community who operate in similar life circles,”"

    I think you've overstated this: As you say, people who don't vote are more likely to be from different 'life circles' to those who do. It seems at least possible to me that compulsory voting would increase the chances of parties getting in power who appeal to bigotry, racism, sexism, fundamentalism and so on.

    Still, I guess I'm for, although I suspect that there are better methods of increasing voter-turnout.


  2. I'm against compulsory anything. If people choose that they don't wish to vote, then that is their right as a thinking being. People should not be forced to do anything that they don't desire to do. If you create a society where compulsion is considered natural, you create individuals that are repressed by others.

  3. Are Australians really that repressed? :P

    Anyway, like I say, we already have compulsory taxation, jury duty, and (at least here in NZ) electoral registration. I don't see why adding 'voting' to that list would be such a dreadful addition.

  4. Plus, people don't have to vote; they can always stay home and pay the small fine if they prefer. Think of it as a compulsory choice between "voting OR being taxed an extra $50". Or to remove the negatives altogether, we could frame it as a positive benefit: voters will receive a small (e.g. $50) tax rebate, as a token of appreciation for their efforts.

  5. Compulsory voting should be an anaethema to anybody with half a brain.

    Government is far too intrusive as it is.

    You say that the poor and young are not represented because they don't vote. Doesn't it occur to you that the poor are that way because thay are not motivated to do anything to improve their lot let alone vote.

    As it is NZ poltics is dominated by the parties bribing their base. Hopefully sometime in the future we will see a leader of vision who will sell his ideas and MOTIVATE people to vote for him (or her).

    But I refuse to be compelled to vote for any of the turkeys we have to day

    I did vote last time but it was a protest vote.

  6. Note that A3) fails for a more fundamental reason: forcing people to vote can not be classified as "paternalism" because it's not substantive. The poor, etc., are still free to vote against their own interests.

    However, A4) becomes very strong when considered in a rational choice context. Ignorance is indeed not fixed and static, however, it seems likely that compulsory voting would increase, rather than decrease, ignorance. By greatly expanding the size of the electrorate, it would make it even more unlikely that any individual voter could have an impact. As a consequence, rational voters would see their expected utility from casting an informed vote plummet, and they would be much less likely to spend resources learning how to carry out their resented duty effectively.

    The claim that disadvantaged interests will be preserved because "votes compelled from disengaged voters are likely to parallel votes from politically aware members of the community who operate in similar life circles,” is unpersuasive, because only so much information can be transmitted in this fashion. The most likely result would seem to be straight-up party-line voting, which in a more "moderate" slate of candidates would be near-meaningless as candidates from all major parties (how many are there in NZ?) with no need to mobilize their base gravitate toward the center (and away from the leftward interests of the disadvantaged groups) per median voter theory.

  7. You may be interested in the alternative view offered in the CIS 'Policy' Magazine - an article this month "It's An Evil Thing to Oblige People to Vote" See - http://www.cis.org.au/Policy/summer05-06/polsumm0506-2.htm

  8. "Compulsary" voting seems like a bad thing to me

    1) If I genuinely dont have a strong oppinion it is inefficient to make me go to a polling booth I don't want to go to. A wase is a waste even if it is a small one.

    2) you could have the payment system as mentioned above this would solve most problems without being "compulsary".

    3) if less civic minded, and less intelligent/informed people remove themselves from the electoral decision making process via a concious decision our decision making process is probably getting better. If these individuals also happen to be poorer that is not of much concern except in as far as society arbitrarily divides itself along those lines.

  9. 3) If more people who are unmotivated to look deeply into the issues(this usually means you care or makes you care) then shallow rehotoric would be more effecient. So it would be used more not less.

  10. I think the right not to vote is an underpinning of democracy.

    Tax is something that we cannot do without, if we wish to have any services like roads, education, and healthcare provided. Jury duty is something we cannot do without IF we wish to retain a legal system, in which one is judged by their peers.

    The right to vote is indeed important, but if you remove the right NOT to vote, then you undermine democracy by forcing people to take part in the process. Force tends to sit more with governments who have secret police forces etc etc; not those who promote democracy, which in itself is promoting the freedom of choice. And if you are forced to vote, where is the freedom of choice inherent to democratic societies?

  11. voting souldnt be compolsory, and as a citizen of Australia i have found that most other citizens create "bad votes" because they either have ittle or if any interest in politics or are offended by the fact that their country has to force its people to do something that clearly violates its human rights. the right to have a say in the democratic process shouldnt be mixed with the duty to do so. now i may only be 16 years of age, but i know that this is an unfair system that just keeps getting worse every three years that it takes place.

  12. Apologies for the blog-thread necrophilia, but there's a weak consideration against compulsory voting which (I think) goes beyond the already quoted reasons (weak in that it's probably not pragmatically decisive). Perhaps though it's similar to what other commentators here have in mind.

    It goes like this: suppose a citizen has only one political wish and that is to replace the electoral system with something else, and no candidates support this wish. For example, perhaps the citizen opposes compulsory voting. A spoiled ballot signifies dissatisfaction with the candidates, but for our imagined citizen such a dissatisfaction is derivative (as their real dissatisfaction is with the system itself). It seems that the only way of expressing themselves in such a system (given a contingent lack of pro-reform candidates) is to refuse to comply with it. Under these circumstances it seems (to me at least) that it would be democratically appropriate to boycot the vote entirely, and compulsion to vote would therefore be a restriction on democratic expression, even with the possibility of a null vote.

    Anyway. I should get back to writing my thesis...

  13. That's an interesting suggestion. But couldn't a spoiled ballot signify dissatisfaction with the system just as well as at the candidates? Besides, I can't see how staying home sends any more of a signal -- some might think you were simply too busy, or perhaps lacking any political views. So that option too is unfortunately ambiguous. I think the real issue here is that a healthy democracy must give its citizens more opportunities to express their views than merely by voting, to enable the voicing of particular protestations for public deliberation. Voting alone is inadequate. But that doesn't entail anything either way on the issue of compulsory voting.

  14. According to a survey taken by the Bureau of the Census in Nov 2000, 11.9 million people did not vote in the election due to "a lack of interest." I don't care how much the electorate is increased by. 11.9 million random or uneducated votes can only hurt our electoral process.

  15. I addressed that concern in section (A4) of my post. Do you have a counterargument to what I said there?

    (Besides, random votes will tend to cancel each other out and hence be fairly harmless. The real worry comes from possible systematic biases.)

  16. hmm just wondering...
    does random noise cancel out effects if there are many choices?
    I can see how it would work if there were two choices (although noise would still be a little bit harmful). Naybe our system effectively controls for that by generally having a 'left vs right' setup.

  17. While it is plausible that some votes are cast primarily out of self-interest, is there any evidence to support the assertion that those "who operate in similar life circles" vote similarly, or are compelled by similar reasons?
    Clearer definition of "similar life circles" is necessary. How are we to subdivide the electorate? By occupation? Socioeconomic status? Neighbourhood density? Or is "similar life circles" an aesthetically pleasing synonym for political affiliation?
    Personally, my vote last went to a party not widely supported by my co-workers, friends, or neighbours. Moreover, I supported the party whose policies most reflect a responsible, sustainable social order; I perceive such an order as good for the vast majority. Such a view is open to challenge, of course, but I fail to see it as motivated solely by self-interest. What's good for the majority is good for me only because I am a part of the majority, and consequently will reap its advantages as a member. That doesn't mean my decision is devoid of altruism.


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