Making citizens vote is not good for democracy. In the following article The Economist points to some of the reasons: it “protects inept politicians and rewards inflammatory ones,” for instance.
But the article misses a big drawback. Compulsory voting makes the political process centrifugal (polarizing), for fringe candidates begin to get electoral support. This was pointed out by Fred Riggs, an American political scientist, in his 1994 paper Problems of Presidentialism.
In India, mandatory voting was considered but never adopted. In the late 1990s, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution had at first proposed making voting compulsory. But the recommendation was later dropped before the final report. This came to light in a member’s note of dissent.
[Excerpts of The Economist article]
Compulsory voting is hardest to enact in the places where it would make most difference
“IF VOTING made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it,” quipped Mark Twain, an American writer. Some governments, however, think voting makes such a difference that they oblige voters to do it. Voting is compulsory in 26 countries around the world, from Argentina to Belgium. To those elsewhere worried about declining voter turnout, compulsory voting may seem tempting. But it is not a shortcut to a healthy democracy.
Turnout has fallen from around 85% of eligible voters across the OECD in the late 1940s to 65% today, according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), an NGO. For many, the changing composition of the voting electorate is as worrying as its dwindling size. Voters in Britain and America are disproportionately rich, well-educated and old. That, studies suggest, skews policymaking. In late-19th-century America, for example, rules barring most blacks in the South from voting seem to have resulted in a much lower ratio of teachers to children in black schools. Government spending on health, in contrast, jumped by a third when women got the vote. Health spending also rose by a third in Brazil, when the introduction of electronic voting made it easier for the less educated to vote.
But boosting turnout is tricky. Making it easier to vote, by extending voting hours, say, or reducing bureaucracy, sometimes helps, but often only marginally. Allowing voters to register on polling day increases turnout by 5-7 percentage points; making election day a holiday seems to make no difference. One study found that after the American state of Oregon abandoned polling stations in favour of postal voting, turnout jumped by ten percentage points. Subsequent research failed to find such large effects, however, and there is some evidence that postal voting exacerbates the skew in who actually casts a ballot.
Efforts to cajole voters also have only a limited impact. Contact with a canvasser seems to be relatively effective, raising the chances of someone voting by around 4.3 percentage points according to one paper. But from Madonna’s threat to spank non-voters in her video “Rock the Vote”, to worthy letters calling on citizens to perform their civic duties, it is hard to find a tactic that boosts turnout by more than a few percentage points.
Indeed, in a world of voluntary voting, the real mystery is why so many voters turn out at all. Although votes matter in bulk, the chance of any individual vote deciding the outcome is minuscule. For voters, therefore, the potential benefit of participating is tiny relative to the cost of trudging to a polling booth and waiting in line. This is a classic collective-action problem, in which individuals have an incentive to free-ride on others’ sense of civic duty.
Making voting mandatory seems like a quick fix. Voters still have the right to abstain by leaving their ballot blank or otherwise spoiling it. The punishment for failing to vote is usually quite mild: in Australia, where voting has been mandatory since 1924, non-voters must either provide an excuse for their absence, or pay a A$20 ($14) fine.
Best of all, it works, both by increasing turnout and by reducing the skew in the electorate. Turnout in countries with compulsory voting is on average seven percentage points higher than in those where it is voluntary. Australia and Belgium both boast voting rates of more than 90%. In the parts of Switzerland where voting is mandatory, the turnout is more representative of the population as a whole than elsewhere. The results are different as a result, with leftist policy positions in referendums winning up to 20 percentage points more support. By the same token, when voting became compulsory in Australia it raised turnoutby 24 percentage points, and increased the Labor party’s share of the vote by 7-10 percentage points. There is an air of a
festival about voting in Australia: in 2013 19% of polling booths featured “sausage sizzles”— barbecues to reward voters with a sausage on bread.
A spoiled ballot
Yet mandatory voting does not necessarily yield a democratic paradise. In places where turnout is already relatively high, compulsory voting may not do much to alter politics. In Austria, for instance, introducing it in some regions had little effect on the relative support for left- and right- wing parties or on the level of public spending.
And in places where turnout is low, and so the impact of mandatory voting might be big, it is politically difficult to enact. Barack Obama recently told a group of students that mandatory voting could have a “transformative” effect on American politics. That is doubtless true: in 2012 voters were split pretty evenly between Mr Obama and his main rival for the presidency, Mitt Romney; according to opinion polls, non-voters favoured Mr Obama by a margin of 35 percentage points. More generally, Republicans tend to do better among the most consistent voters. It is hard to imagine them supporting a step that could massively diminish their electoral fortunes.
Republicans might dress up their resistance as a matter of principle. For starters, voting and compulsion are an odd mix. Forcing apathetic voters into polling stations might mean a more uninformed electorate, which protects inept politicians and rewards inflammatory ones. It might also take some of the spark out of politics: the Dutch scrapped it in 1967, on the ground that it made politicians complacent. It would be far better, surely, to try to get non-voters interested in politics than to drag them to the polls against their will.
[Article first published in The Economist]