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Is compulsory voting justified?

A logical look at the arguments for forcing people to vote in elections

Should voting be made compulsory? It's a question that has been posed increasingly often since turnouts at national elections have fallen dramatically in recent years.

In the UK for example, fewer than 60 per cent of the electorate voted in the 2001 General Election – a dramatic decline from the figure of 78 per cent who voted in 1992 and more than 83 per cent in 1950.

image of a voting formThe case for compulsory voting is made on both political and ethical grounds – its supporters arguing that on the one hand it would reinvigorate genuine democratic choice and give government's real legitimacy and that, in ethical terms, people who refuse to vote are parasitic on those who take their duties to democracy seriously.

Now both strand of the argument have been subjected to new critical scrutiny by LSE's Dr Annabelle Lever who finds the case for compulsory voting simply doesn't stand up.

Dr Lever, a fellow in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, explains the six-step argument set out by proponents of compulsory voting. They point out that low turnout is increasing and that it also means unequal turnout since the voting decline is especially marked among lower-skilled, lower-earners.

This, it is argued, can lead to a vicious circle – since many of the worst-off in society do not vote they are less likely to get attention and action from political parties which further reduces their interest in voting.

Then there is the claim that compelling people to attend their polling station would be the best remedy for both low and unequal turnout. Additional benefits, say supporters, could include less expensive campaigns, engagement between politicians and those least interested in politics and a reduction in negative campaigning.

The final arguments for compulsory voting are that it would not violate any significant liberties because it only forces citizens to turn out, not to vote (dissenters could choose to just tick their name on the register and go home) and that non-voters are free-riding on voters – that is, selfishly benefiting from the public good of a democratic system.

However Dr Lever finds that the case for compulsory voting is flawed: 'The supposed benefits are more speculative and uncertain than proponents believe', she says 'and compulsion threatens people's freedom and equality in ways they have overlooked.'

First, she says, latest political research suggests that while it may raise turnout it has no effect on political knowledge or interest and does not appear to force politicians to appeal to the poorest and most marginalised.

And why, in any case, need we find low turnout ethically troubling? Dr Lever argues that people may decline to vote for a variety of reasons which are not equally weighty. For example the case of a voter who stays at home because they are not particularly excited by any candidate seems less urgent a problem than those who don't vote because political participation seems entirely alien to them.

What's more, the right NOT to vote is not a trivial one. Dr Lever argues: 'It captures two ideas that are central to democracy…that government is there for the benefit of the governed, not the other way round. The second is that the duties and rights of citizens are importantly different from those of their representatives, because the latter have powers and responsibilities that the former do not.'

While it can be argued citizens have duties which may, on occasion, demand they vote (for example to defeat a racist candidate) it is harder to see why voting must be a general duty. Many people would see other forms of social participation as more valuable than voting.

Dr Lever also identifies two major cracks in the 'free-rider' argument. On the one hand the depiction of non-voters as selfish beneficiaries of democracy is not consistent with the fact that non-voters tend to be the marginalised and less well-off. They are, she argues, more likely to be victims of the system not its beneficiaries.

Secondly, she questions the assumption that compulsory voting is necessary to protect a public good – equivalent to the compulsion to pay taxes or serve on a jury. Not only is it not clear that a big electoral turnout is in itself a 'public good', but the other examples are different in both weight and quality. Jury service, for example, 'appeals to moral and political notions of equality, fairness and justice that go well beyond the idea that the state can solve collective action problems via coercion.' In other words the public good invoked here – of justice to defendants – is more profound than that of endowing a government with legitimacy.

Many countries do have compulsory voting – including Australia, Belgium and Greece. But although Dr Lever accepts that compulsion might be necessary at times of national stress or to protect the powerless, she concludes that forcing people to vote is no necessary part of a stable democracy: 'People must have rights to limit their participation in politics and to abstain. Such rights are necessary for people to decide what they are entitled to do, what they have a duty to do and best to act on their respective rights and duties.'

 

Useful links

Is Compulsory Voting Justified?| [leads to PDF] by Dr Annabelle Lever is published in the journal Public Reason.

For full details of Dr Annabelle Lever's research and publications please see her profile in the LSE Experts Directory: Dr Annabelle Lever|

Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method|

 

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