Compulsory Voting

“Wow. Voter turnout these days is really in the toilet. Even in this bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred, going for the throat and genitals (not in that order) kinda election, only what, 60 per cent turnout? It’s about time we made it a law!”

I hear where you’re coming from, officer. I do. Despite the flaws in our electoral system and all the mushiness it creates, voting is important — at the very least, symbolically. Even if you just want to spoil your ballot, making your voice heard is important, especially when it’s one of the most powerful institutions in our society you’re talking about. 

For all of the meek admonishments for us to get out and vote, low voter turnout in a system like ours disproportionately favours the more powerful parties.

So, why not? Why not send out the RCMP, horses and all, round up every infirm old woman, drag every middle-aged retail employee out of work, and herd them into the nearest gymnasium? It’s their patriotic duty, after all! 

Maybe so. But giving the government license to enforce our rights of participation on us rather guts the whole voluntary idea. It’s a bad precedent, it’s bad form, and it’s not even a very practical notion. 

Yes, democratic engagement à la voting is a good thing. Of course, as my colleague has pointed out, it’s far from the only way of engaging democratically. 

So, how would we force people to vote? Since enforced compulsory voting is predicated on the direct use of force, do we simply fine people for not voting? That seems the easiest and least-invasive way of doing things. 

Well, who are we trying to motivate? In Canada, poorer people who work more tend to vote less (so suggests these data from Statistics Canada). It makes sense. If you’re poor, it’s more punishing to take time out of the workday to vote. Similarly, it’s probably harder for you to make it to advance polls, since you’re less able to use money to cover your time (i.e., not making dinner but ordering in so you have time to run out and vote isn’t a viable option if you’re struggling to put food on the table.) Single people, and single parents in particular, are less likely to vote. Are all those single parents just lazy? 

Is what these people really need: A swift kick in the ass? A disincentive for not doing something? Given that they’re the ones struggling in some ways, it hardly seems fair to punish them for refusing to punish themselves. 

On a purely ideological level, the idea of the government having the right to force me to exercise a right bothers me. 

First, I’ll vote, or not vote, as I damn well please. I’m an adult, and I fully understand the consequences of not voting (often there are no consequences in safe ridings; that’s a harsh truth, but a truth nevertheless). 

Not to mention that, especially in a more representative system, not voting is already self-correcting. The fewer people that think like you vote, the less representation you have, and the less your ideas and beliefs are reflected in policy. That creates an increasingly greater incentive to get out to vote. If people consistently don’t vote time after time, maybe that’s a sign they’ve hit an equilibrium – enough people voted my way to achieve about as much as we’re ever going to. 

That’s not a problem of people being lazy. That’s systemic. That’s where people can do a cost-benefit analysis and come to the conclusion that taking the time to vote isn’t worth it. 

Voting is not an inherently valuable thing. It doesn’t make you a better person for having done it. There’s nothing whatsoever morally wrong with saying “I know exactly what my vote is worth, and it’s worth less than the effort to go out and vote.” 

If someone feels that voting isn’t worth their time, but you do, that’s not their problem. It’s ours, as a community and society, and the solution isn’t a stick to beat them into compliance with, it’s to work toward arrangements that don’t systematically enforce disenfranchisement and hopelessness.

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Connor Lynch

About the Author: Connor Lynch

Connor is a professional journalist from Ottawa, Canada. He is the Editor in Chief of Speaking Liberally and a contributor.

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