Wednesday, December 23, 2009

'Compulsory Voting'

This is a topic that I often have long discussions over.  From my perspective the arguments for 'compulsory voting' are many, and those against are few, and weak.  As an Australian citizen, I'm familiar with a 'compulsory voting' system, where eligible citizens are fined for failing to show up at the polling station.

Why the quotes around 'compulsory voting'?  Well, because its not voting that is compulsory, but registering that you had the opportunity to vote.  It is perfectly legal to turn up to the polling station, have your name crossed off, and deposit an unmarked ballot paper. 'Compulsory voting' suffers badly from a poor name that not only fails to convey what it represents, but also conveys something that it does not represent.

Arguments for 'compulsory voting':
  1. Demonstrating opportunity to vote - a democratic system where some eligible citizens are denied the opportunity to vote is not functioning correctly. In a voluntary voting system, how do you tell the difference between someone who chose not to vote and someone who was unable to vote? We see examples in US elections of some voter segments being unable to vote due to lack of electoral resources, or worse, strategic removal of resources to commit fraud. Whether this is fact or fiction is beside the point - we can't tell the difference between those who did not get the opportunity to vote, and those who got the opportunity, but chose not to exercise it. Assuming you are correctly registered, a 'compulsory voting' system will ask you to explain why you didn't attend a polling station, and fine you if you cannot do so.
  2. Undermining intimidation - it may be the case that opportunity to vote exists, however third parties place an eligible citizen under pressure not to vote.  We see this in Afghanistan where the Taliban threaten physical harm to those who vote.  It is also the case that some elements of society are put under pressure not to vote for religious or cultural reasons.  While 'compulsory voting' will never remove intimidation, it provides a powerful weapon against its effectiveness.
  3. Accurate Representation - Society places huge demands on our time, and for some people, those demands are much greater than for others. It seems incredibly idealistic to assume that in a voluntary election the people who vote are those who wanted to, and the people who don't vote are those who didn't want to. In a voluntary election, it seems obvious that the proportion of people who vote will be skewed towards those who find it easier. People working two jobs, single parents, handicapped and disabled, people very distant from a polling station, people with large families, with sick children (the list goes on) may find it difficult to vote. None of these groups are by definition any more 'apathetic' than any other group, but I'd put money on them being less represented. These groups often only have time for things which are compulsory. This argument essentially says that with 'compulsory voting', the less able and less well-off are more effectively represented.
  4. Separating apathy and laziness - Surely those are synonyms, right? In some contexts, perhaps, but to me, apathy means 'I don't care', while laziness means 'I can't be bothered'. I'm going to approach this discussion from personal experience. I have spent a lot of my adult life in the UK, where I am also a citizen with the right to vote, and where voting is voluntary.  I've had many political conversations, on numerous occasions with people who are well aware of the political landscape and what is going on. These discussions are often deep and heated, with a very broad range of well constructed analyses. These people are keenly interested in politics. It is extraordinary how many of them don't vote.  Since I'm talking from personal experience, I should point out that I have only voted in one UK election, despite being eligible since 1996, and living here for roughly half that time.  So, anecdotes about others aside - I have the opportunity to vote, I'm not politically apathetic, but I don't vote. What's going on? Well, I'd say a bit of point 3, a bit of laziness and a bit of point 5.  It's amazing how much you can find to do on a Saturday instead of going to the polling booths.  I wonder how many people reading this haven't voted at every opportunity, yet do not consider themselves politically apathetic?
  5. Fighting the perception that one vote doesn't make a difference - every sensible person knows that democratic elections are won by tallying all the votes and determining the winner - sometimes according to a ludicrously complex representational system - but the basic principle is there. It is plainly obvious that your vote counts (assuming no fraud - 1, 2, 3), yet you just can't fight that feeling, on election day, that it won't make a difference whether you turn up or not. The polls say 'Candidate A' by 2.5% - that's like a gazillion votes - if I don't turn up it will be a gazillion minus one. It is so easy to justify not turning up - our brains just can't cope with the logic of operating in a group of that size. We see the same psychology with conservation efforts - nobody wants the world to frizzle or choke, but drawing any relationship between switching a light off and an effect on the larger environment is just about too much for our brains to cope with. We have to work hard to apply the logic, even though we know it must be true. 
Arguments against compulsory voting:
  1. Voting is a Civil Right, not a Civil Duty - I'm happy with that definition - you shouldn't be forced to vote. Handy, then, that 'compulsory voting' doesn't force you to vote. What is a necessity, however, is knowing that everyone who was eligible, and wanted to vote had an opportunity to do so. Right now, our best chance to achieve that is making it compulsory to demonstrate your opportunity. If we could find a solution that didn't require you to physically turn up on election day, that would be great, but for now its the best we have. 'Compulsory voting' delivers on all of the above arguments, while still offering your civil right to (or not to) vote. This argument is saying that you shouldn't have to do stuff if you don't want to. Well, you have to pay taxes, you have to drive on the correct side of the road, you have to avoid the urge to hit people. Saying 'Hey, I could have voted if I wanted to', doesn't seem much, and arguing against it seems a touch pedantic, especially looking at all the benefits.
  2. It isn't easy to deliver, or enforce - This is very true. In Australia, compulsory voting relies on the accuracy of the electoral roll - this ensures that your name is on the list when you turn up to the polling station. You also need to be able to prove who you are, and where you live. If you don't turn up you get fined - but the fine notice is sent to the address on the electoral roll. Keeping the electoral roll up to date requires constant maintenance, and something that can never be done completely. If you never enrol, then you'll never be fined for not turning up - but of course you can't vote unless you're on the roll. A lot of effort is made by the government to keep the roll up to date, and the process is fairly simple. That's in Australia - and in the global context, life ain't hard in Australia (for most people). Apart from a protracted effort to destroy the culture that first occupied Australia, the most civil unrest Australia has experienced appears to be a couple of small riots (1, 2). Implementing 'compulsory voting' in places where things aren't so stable could be a real challenge. This argument is, however, a falsehood. If we ran our society on the basis that we should only do what is easy, and not what is right, then we'd have, well, hmmm... something like what we have now. We've just seen in Copenhagen how doing hard things can be tough - even when they are right. We need to do hard things, and we shouldn't avoid them because they are hard. This argument says we shouldn't do 'compulsory voting' because it is too hard, and that's not a sufficient, especially when we begin to reap the benefits even when the implementation is not perfect.
  3. Uninformed, ignorant, or apathetic people shouldn't be deciding our government - 'people like X shouldn't be voting' - sounds pretty bad - just having a list is a recipe for real problems. I'd first say that using failure to vote as a discriminator for anything is useless. As discussed above, the people who don't vote when voting is voluntary fail to do so for many reasons, and can not be identified as fitting into any specific category other than 'those who didn't vote'. Lets look at it from another angle though - would our world be better if everything were decided by a benevolent, altruistic genius - the benevolent dictator, or enlightened despot? Perhaps all our efforts should be put into finding benevolent dictators. What would be the process for finding such a person? Would everyone get a say, or just some people? Perhaps the despot could choose their successor, or some other mechanism might be used? When looking at these options, we realise that all our political systems, in one way or another, represent a search for the enlightened despot. Our Leader. Of course most systems have worked out by now that we have to limit the powers of our enlightened despot, in case we get it wrong and he turns out to be just a despot, or even worse - a malevolent despot. In the US, the president may only serve 2 terms, and many people are currently very thankful for that limitation. So how does all this relate to the argument that some people shouldn't vote - that representation of ignorance is bad for the political process? Only that one man's ignorance is another's enlightenment - and that everyone is affected by the government that is elected - 'ignorant' or 'informed'. This argument boils down to 'I only want people to participate if they are likely to agree with me', or worse 'I know better than you do what's best for us'.  It's a false argument.
It is important to note that there are a great many arguments against being forced to vote - 'don't like the candidates', 'can't trust the media', 'nothing ever gets done', etc.  These are not arguments against demonstrating your opportunity to vote, and therefore not arguments against 'compulsory voting'.  'Compulsory voting' does not compel you to vote.

In the end, it all boils down to how we measure opportunity to participate.  We need to start talking about measuring opportunity, not 'compulsory voting' or voluntary voting.  Finding new, less intrusive and more powerful means to measure our capacity to participate must be a goal for an evolving democratic process.

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