The flaws and benefits of compulsory voting

Published on June 5th, 2020 for College Green Group.​

Sophia G. is Head of Research at College Green Group and Resident Blogger covering all sections of the business.

Voter engagement and voter turnout are hot topics in political discussion at the moment. Many democracies have seen a decline in voter turnout in the last 20 years. Some believe that this issue has a simple fix: compulsory voting.

Compulsory voting can be either an enforced or unenforced law that requires all eligible citizens to vote. Compulsory voting is currently enforced in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Nauru, North Korea, Peru, Samoa, Singapore, the Swiss canton of Schaffhausen, and Uruguay. 

Enforcement is not universal: Legitimate reasons for not voting, such as illness, are permitted and penalties for failing to vote can vary from fines and disenfranchisement to more serious punishments like withdrawal of salary for three months.

Supporters argue that compulsory voting creates a stronger democracy by making citizens take responsibility for the government they choose, by producing more stable and legitimate governments, who have a genuine mandate to govern. In countries like Australia, compulsory voting accounted for a large increase in voter turnout. Additionally, supporters claim that it stimulates more interest in politics and more societal participation.  

Detractors, however, may see compulsory voting as an infringement on one’s right not to vote (though in many countries with compulsory voting, voters are not required to cast a valid vote). Compulsory voting may compel people to vote for a candidate they do not genuinely believe in just to fulfil their legal obligations. It can also be incredibly difficult to enforce. In addition, there is evidence that compulsory voting can actually discourage political participation: Enforced voting can make an individual’s vote seem less important to them. In practice, the 2018 election in Brazil saw 20.3% of registered voters not vote, showing that compulsory voting doesn’t always increase voter turnout (Paulo Teixeira da Costa, ‘Brazil’s 2018 General Election’, Institute of Development Studies, 19 October 2018).

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