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Beyond Turnout: The Consequences of Compulsory Voting
Compulsory voting is often suggested as a solution to the problem of declining turnout. But how are individuals and countries affected by compulsory voting beyond boosting electoral participation? Shane Singh investigates the social, economic, and political consequences of compelling citizens to vote.
There has been a lot of discussion about compulsory voting these days. In the United Kingdom, in particular, as voter turnout rates have declined, many commentators and politicians have begun advocating for mandatory electoral participation. Those in favour of compulsory voting often adduce the importance of participation among all segments of society. Citizens of democracies are forced to do many things in the interest of the public good, they maintain, including serving on juries and educating their children, and full participation serves the country as whole. Those opposed to compulsory voting often argue that, from a democratic theory perspective, the right to vote implicitly includes a right not to vote. Such a right of abstention, they argue, is more important than any societal good that might accompany high turnout. In fact, opponents of compulsory voting often contend that the country may be better off if those who are disinclined to vote are not pushed to participate in public affairs.
In Brazil, non-voters cannot work in the public sector, obtain a passport or a loan from a public bank. Image © Reuters/Washington Alves
Regardless of whether one of these sets of arguments is more persuasive than the other, compulsory voting is commonly used around the world. Several European democracies mandate voting, as do Australia and most of the countries in Latin America. By evaluating results from these countries, it is possible to assess the mechanics and effects of compulsory voting.
Quite plainly, as compared to countries with voluntary voting, participation rates are higher on average where voting is mandated, especially where abstainers can be sure that their nonparticipation will be punished. Of course, this is not all that surprising. Decades of research on human decision making, and, more pertinently, political behaviour, has established that an individual will undertake a particular action if its perceived benefits outweigh its perceived costs. Making abstention costly by fining abstainers, in effect, lowers the relative costs of voting, making it more beneficial to turn out and vote.
It is clear that compulsory voting boosts electoral participation, but how are individuals and countries affected by compulsory voting beyond turnout? By inducing many of those who would normally abstain to participate, compulsory voting changes the character of the voting population and, in turn, it can change electoral choices and the incentives provided to politicians seeking voter support. Such a dynamic may be accompanied by important social, economic, and political consequences.
The Origin and Nature of Compulsory Rules
Compulsory voting has been adopted for a variety of reasons, including colonial ties, traditions, and as a method for curbing the purchase of votes. For example, countries with Spanish heritage are relatively likely to make voting mandatory. In Switzerland, many of the cantons that adopted compulsory voting had existing traditions of forced political participation, including laws requiring members to wear swords to cantonal assemblies. Some Belgian leaders saw compulsory voting as a way to end vote buying, which was also a primary motive in Thailand's adoption of compulsory voting.
Politics and party competition has also played a role in the adoption of compulsory voting. In both Belgium and Greece, some members of the upper class saw compulsory voting as a method of preventing outsized influence of the working class. In Australia, the incumbent Labor Party supported compulsory voting as a way to ensure that turnout among their supporters would match that of supporters of the better-funded Liberal-National Coalition. Meanwhile, the Coalition supported compulsory voting as a way to lessen the need for voter mobilisation campaigns, thus freeing up resources for other endeavours.
Compulsory Voting in Latin America
Starting with its adoption in El Salvador in 1883, compulsory voting spread throughout Latin America as elections were introduced around the region in the ensuing decades. Today, compulsory voting is widespread in Latin America, with 14 countries currently making voting obligatory. In nine of these countries, there are sanctions for abstention. The nature of these sanctions, which can be non-monetary, monetary, or both, varies by country, and both the depth of the sanctions and their likelihood of enforcement vary across the region.
In the Latin American countries that routinely sanction abstention, participation rates tend to be higher than in countries in the region with voluntary rules or in those with unenforced compulsory voting. In Chile, compulsory voting was dropped in 2012, and turnout in its recent national election, its first held under voluntary rules, declined sharply. In Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru, compulsory rules are not enforced among senior citizens, and turnout rates tend to drop as individuals cross the compulsory voting age threshold.
Home to some of the highest levels of socioeconomic inequality in the world, compulsory voting in Latin America may be particularly important for ensuring the representativeness of the voting population. On the flip side, compelling the socioeconomically disadvantaged, who tend to be less politically informed and interested, to the polls could lead to votes that are cast with little consideration – a dynamic that could have ill effects on electoral outcomes in Latin America.
Today, nearly 30 countries employ compulsory voting. In many places, such as Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador, while voting is legally required, abstainers are not fined. In countries where sanctions for abstention are generally enforced, no two laws are the same. For example, in Brazil, while the fine for abstention is generally less than the equivalent of £1, those who do not vote, among other things, cannot work in the public sector, cannot obtain admission to public schools, and cannot acquire a passport or a loan from a public bank. Nonvoters are also barred from making banking transactions in neighbouring Bolivia and Peru. In Australia, the fine for abstention is equivalent to £11, and nonpayment can lead to imprisonment for contempt of court. In Cyprus and Luxembourg, penalties for abstention can reach a bulky £280 and £815, respectively, though these sanctions are rarely carried out. In Schaffhausen, the only canton in Switzerland that fines abstainers, the penalty is £2.
Compulsory Voting and Turnout
Figure 1 (page 23) depicts turnout rates in legislative elections since 1970 in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Of the four countries, only Australia makes voting mandatory, and its turnout rate is consistently well above those of the other countries. Further, while the turnout rate has declined in the three countries with voluntary voting in recent years, it has been remarkably stable in Australia. This pattern is not limited to these Anglo-American democracies: around the world, countries with compulsory voting have relatively high turnout levels, especially where penalties for abstention are harsh and routinely enforced (see figure 2, page 23).
Figure 1. Election turnout rates in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States Source: the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
Figure 2. Turnout Intentions and Compulsory Voting in the Caribbean and the Americas. Source: The AmericasBarometer.
The turnout rate is also affected when a country adopts or drops compulsory rules, or when a country only applies compulsory voting in a certain region or among certain people. For example, the six Australian states adopted compulsory voting at different times, and, as a result, participation rates jumped abruptly in each case. Conversely, when the Netherlands abandoned compulsory voting in 1970, turnout declined sharply. In Schaffhausen, turnout tends to be highest among all Swiss cantons. In five Latin American countries with compulsory voting, the rules are not enforced among senior citizens, and turnout rates in these countries tend to drop among individuals above the age at which turnout is no longer required (see box, opposite).
Does Compulsory Voting Affect Citizens and the Country?
Compulsory voting's effects on turnout are more pronounced among certain segments of the electorate. By attaching a penalty to abstention, compulsory voting decreases disincentives for turnout among these underrepresented societal groups and, as such, their participation rates typically begin to approach those of more mainstream groups where voting is forced. For example, in research I recently published in Political Studies, I found that the young, the less knowledgeable, the poor, and those who are more detached from politics participate at roughly the same rate as their older, more knowledgeable, richer, and more engaged counterparts in countries where voting is compulsory and abstention is sanctioned.
Of course, by increasing participation among these typically dormant groups, compulsory voting produces voting populations that are more likely to include individuals who are apathetic or unknowledgeable about politics and government. One effect of compelling these individuals to the polls is an increase in the percentage of blank and spoilt ballots. Further, as many such individuals do complete a ballot paper, compulsory voting can increase the incidence of votes that do not necessarily align with ideological or policy preferences, and instead are cast randomly, perhaps in response to a hot-button issue or a scandal, or reflecting a psychological attachment to a political party. And, for individuals who are sceptical of the democratic system, forcing engagement with it may exacerbate their negative orientations toward democracy itself.
An alternative perspective is that would-be apathetic individuals, and those who are negatively oriented toward democracy, will take up an interest in political affairs and become more civically oriented where their participation is required. Moreover, such individuals have the option of spoiling their ballots or leaving them blank where forced to vote. This viewpoint provocatively suggests that it is possible to legislate a politically informed and engaged populace with minimal drawbacks, though empirical research has returned mixed support for such an effect. Thus, the jury is still out. As research on compulsory voting continues, we will hopefully arrive at a more definitive understanding of its effects on citizen behaviour and attitudes.
Compulsory rules alter the character of the voting population, so it is reasonable to suspect that political outcomes will also vary across countries with compulsory and voluntary voting. First, party system characteristics may be affected by compulsory voting. By motivating participation among typically disadvantaged groups, compulsory voting can benefit parties of the left. In Australia, for example, compulsory voting is generally thought to advantage the Labor Party over the Liberal-National Coalition. Further, party systems may become more fragmented where voting is required: where politically apathetic individuals are forced to vote, they often choose extremist or ‘anti-system’ parties. While this dynamic could, in theory, benefit parties on both ideological extremes, it appears that the far right profits more from compulsory voting than the far left.
Differences in the makeup of governments in compulsory and voluntary systems, can, in turn, affect societal outcomes. For example, outside of Latin America at least, income inequality tends to be lower where voting is mandated, likely because socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals participate more where voting is not optional, selecting politicians of the left and others with policy positions that cater to their needs. Further, compulsory voting has been linked to reduced political corruption, potentially because it incentivises disillusioned voters, many of whom would otherwise stay home, to go to the polls and vote against improbity. Anecdotal evidence for this is found in Australia, which is considered by Transparency International to be one of the least corrupt countries in the world – and less corrupt than the United Kingdom and the United States.
While few other empirical links between compulsory voting and country-level outcomes have been established, compulsory voting's societal consequences are likely much more broad than our current understanding suggests. As research on compulsory voting's effects continues to grow, many of these consequences should come to light.
Is Compulsory Voting Sensible?
In many of the countries with voluntary voting, the adoption of a compulsory rule is actively debated, both in the media and in the legislature. For example, in 2001, Gareth Thomas, MP for Harrow West, introduced a Private Member's Bill advocating the introduction of compulsory voting in the United Kingdom. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken in favour of a transition from voluntary to compulsory voting, a position that has garnered recent attention in the Indian media. Earlier this year, the center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria party introduced an ultimately unsuccessful bill into parliament that would have made voting compulsory.
Compulsory voting is also sometimes challenged in countries where it is in use. In Australia, for example, the constitutionality of compulsory voting was contested in a 2013 court case that, after being rejected by the Supreme Court of the state of South Australia, was ultimately denied a hearing in the nation's top court. An unsuccessful challenge to compulsory voting in Austria, which has since been abandoned nationwide, was heard before the European Court of Human Rights in 1971.
Normative debates over the justifiability of compulsory rules abound, both in popular media and the academic literature. While countries considering the adoption of compulsory voting may revisit and rehash such deliberations, here I have set them aside, instead focusing on the observed consequences of compulsory voting laws. This outcomes-oriented approach suggests that the degree to which a country may find compulsory voting desirable depends both on its goals and on the tradeoffs it is willing to endure. A country with low turnout and voluntary voting will almost certainly see a boost in its participation rate if it switches to compulsory voting. And, the more punitively it treats abstainers, the stronger this effect will be. Nevertheless, countries considering a change to their voting rule should be aware that compulsory voting could affect more than the rate of electoral participation.
And, of course, many countries enjoy high turnout levels without forcing participation – a common example is found in the Scandinavian states. Indeed, there are many cultural, socioeconomic, and institutional reasons for variation in turnout rates, meaning countries seeking to achieve high turnout do not necessarily need to turn to compulsory voting. Mandatory electoral participation does, however, represent perhaps the quickest and most reliable method of raising the turnout rate – making it a tempting option in an age of declining turnout.
- Birch, S. (2009) Full Participation: A Comparative Study of Compulsory Voting. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Brennan, J. and Hill, L. (2014) Compulsory Voting: For and Against. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Singh, S. P. (forthcoming) Compulsory Voting and the Turnout Decision Calculus. Political Studies.
Shane P Singh is Assistant professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia.