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Compulsory voting and election turnout

by Alex Mackenzie

Rarely is there harmony on anything around election time. But everyone seems to agree that not enough New Zealanders are voting (see here, here, and here). That this election saw a rise in turnout since the last one is hardly worth celebrating when you consider both that the 2011 election was the worst turnout since women were enfranchised, and that nearly one million eligible voters stayed at home. The trend for the past three decades has been a dramatic decline.

One solution which is empirically guaranteed to increase turnout has been ignored by almost everyone: compulsory voting. Compulsory voting is a system whereby citizens are legally compelled to attend the polls, with the failure to attend attracting a small fine (in Australia, which has had compulsory voting for nearly a century, the fine -- strictly enforced -- is $20).

The term "compulsory voting", therefore, is a misnomer because the compulsion relates to turning up rather than to voting. Proper compulsory voting systems provide for conscientious objections prior to the election and a "none of the above" option on the ballot paper. Given the secret ballot, there is also the option of handing in a spoiled or blank paper.

There are two basic reasons to favour compulsory voting. First, there is near universal consensus that it is guaranteed to increase turnout immediately. Birch’s extensive review of the empirical literature concluded that turnout levels increase by an average of 15 % at the election following the implementation of compulsory voting. This is desirable because low turnout is, in nearly every case, unequal turnout.

In the 2011 election, non-voters were much more likely to be young, unemployed, and poor. And unequal turnout spells unequal influence. As Lijphart observes in his often-cited article, the existing studies on the relationship between voter turnout and policy outcomes “all find compelling evidence that unequal voting participation is associated with policies that favour privileged voters over underprivileged voters”. In other words, it really does matter who shows up and who doesn't.

The second reason is that compulsory voting is a logical extension of the right to vote. This is because the value of the vote stems from its exercise. Voting is important for theoretical reasons, but it is first and foremost valued because it makes a difference. And in contrast to other sources of power, when it comes to voting, we are all worth the same (as the Electoral Commission's advertisements stressed).

Insofar as compulsory voting results in greater participation, it promotes the right to vote. The first goal of democracy may have been universal suffrage. But we should not be content with this if certain groups consistently fail to exercise their rights and suffer as a result. As Lijphart emphasises, we should aim for "universal or near-universal turnout".

The major arguments against compulsory voting can all be answered. First is the claim that compulsion is undemocratic, such as the "forced consent to government" objection made in this post on No Right Turn.

But as noted above, a well-designed system will allow for legitimate abstentions both before and during an election - there is no compulsion to actually cast a ballot. A variant of this argument is that we have a right not to vote, and compulsory voting violates it. Not only is there no right not to vote, but even if there were, a compulsory system that provides for abstentions would not violate it. Again, the right to vote is about participation; if it implied legal protection for its converse, it would be self-defeating.

Second, it might be said that increasing turnout doesn't solve the underlying problems associated with why people aren't showing up. But the attractiveness of compulsory voting doesn't depend on it being able to address voter apathy. And it is incorrect to think non-voters are apathetic - the vast majority stay at home for reasons other than political disaffection. In any case, compulsory systems are better at tracking people's reasons for abstaining, meaning the system at least helps us identify the underlying problems.

A particularly dangerous and related objection is that society should not compel the disinterested to vote. But, as Bart Engelen notes, the point of democracy is to reflect the views of all citizens, whether engaged or not. Requiring a sufficient level of interest or intelligence as a precondition for voting goes against everything the right to vote is meant to achieve and protect. In Engelen's words, "democracy is everybody's business".

Compulsory voting immediately raises turnout and in so doing goes some way to remedying the ills of unequal turnout. It promotes and enhances rather than diminishes the right to vote, which is not a right to be left alone but a right to participate. Arguments against the institution either exaggerate the degree of compulsion involved or rely on questionable premises about who should vote. A discussion of the merits or otherwise of compulsory voting has, lamentably, been almost completely absent from New Zealand politics thus far. It's time to have that debate.

Alex Mackenzie is a University of Auckland law graduate working at Russell McVeagh

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