Mandatory voting, often referred to as “compulsory voting,” is a structure where the laws of a nation require eligible citizens to register and vote in elections. If the voter chooses not to vote, then penalties can be imposed if a sufficient reason for not voting cannot be provided.
Australia requires mandatory voting for all eligible citizens. People who fail to vote may receive a notice in the mail seeking an explanation of their failure to vote. If the explanation is not accepted, then first-time offenders are fined $20. That fine is increased to $50 for those who have paid previous penalties or been convicted of failing to vote.
In Australia, voters who do not respond to the notices sent by mail or refuse to pay their assigned penalty could lose their driver’s license.
There are certain pros and cons of mandatory voting that must be considered when looking at this idea from an outside perspective.
List of the Pros of Mandatory Voting
1. It allows the government to reflect the wishes of the majority.
When mandatory voting is not part of a country’s laws, then voter participation can be very low. Out of 35 peer countries, the United States ranks 28th in terms of total voter turnout. In the State of Hawaii, the average voter turnout is somewhere around 50%. In West Virginia, the average voter turnout is just 52.9%. In Australia, where mandatory voting is enforced, turnout rates are often above 90%. That means the government is a better reflection of the population.
2. It limits the voices of the extreme.
Because mandatory voting requires everyone who is eligible to vote, it limits the voices of extremist views that can impact the direction of the government. That allows the government to pursue legislation that is more centrist in nature, which benefits the general society more than one political side or the other. By protecting against the extreme, potentially vulnerable minorities have more protections available to them as well.
3. It reduces election costs.
In Australia, the election costs per voter, for each major election that is held, is about $15 per voter. Since 1990, the cost per voter has increased about 15% with each subsequent election. In the United States, where mandatory voting is not part of the electoral process, state elections can be much more expensive. In Iowa, the cost per voter for elections was $39.11 in 2014. In New Hampshire, it was $50 per voter. Then, in Alaska, the cost per voter was $120.59.
4. It reduces “red meat” conversations in the election process.
In the United States, many voters are motivated to vote for their preferred candidate because that person supports one core social issue. Many voters vote with their bank accounts in mind in the U.S., even if issues like abortion, religious freedom, or gun rights are part of the equation. With mandatory voting, candidates can focus on more issues than the “red meat” items. Deeper conversations about where to take the country become possible.
5. It encourages voters to be informed about candidates and issues.
There will always be people who go to the voting booth to make random votes because they want to avoid paying the penalty for not voting. Under a mandatory voting structure, however, many voters do more research on candidates and core issues. They engage in debates and confront controversial ideas that may not work. That ultimately results in legislative decisions that help more people overall.
List of the Cons of Mandatory Voting
1. It eliminates the concept of having freedom.
Voting is certainly a privilege. Some would even call it a civic “right” or “responsibility.” In countries where mandatory voting is not part of the government structure, the decision to not cast a ballot is still a vote. It is a vote that says the voter rejects all candidates, the structure of the government, or other personal reasons. The choice to not vote speaks of more freedom than the requirement to vote or pay a fine.
2. It can reduce interest in local elections.
Many voters do educate themselves on core local issues to make informed votes when an election day rolls around. Compelling citizens to vote is not a guarantee that a voter will decide to be actively involved in an election. Voters could choose candidates randomly. They could purposely vote against certain proposals or candidates to be disruptive. For these people, the funds spent on issue awareness are basically wasted.
3. It forces people to pay penalties for following their religious beliefs.
There are several religious groups which have rejected participation in politics. The largest group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have 8.2 million adherents throughout the world. About 70,000 of them live in Australia, where mandatory voting forces them to serve their faith or their government, but not both. Old Order Amish, Christadelphians, Doukhobors, the Baha’i, and the Shaykhiya are all known to reject participation in politics as well.
4. It increases the costs of law enforcement.
Although mandatory voting may decrease the cost per voter in an election, the process of enforcing voting laws creates an increased cost for local law enforcement officials. Notices were sent to a majority of the 6% of people who did not vote in the last election in Australia. Enforcement of penalties comes at a cost as well. For those who refuse to pay an assigned penalty, the costs to enforce a revocation of a driver’s license and other penalties has a cost as well.
5. It increases the rates of informal voting.
In Australia, informal voting is defined as a ballot that has not been properly completed. These ballots are not counted towards a candidate or issue. Blank ballots, those without official marks, or papers that identify the specific voter are all common reasons for ballots to be considered informal. Since ballots do not identify specific voters, that means compulsory voting doesn’t actually create a vote in all circumstances. Voters just need to show up and make sure their ballot is cast.
In 2013, 5.9% of votes that were cast in Australia’s election were informal, which was the highest rate since 1984. Informal votes that were classified as deliberate went from 34% in 2001 to 49% in 2010. Informal votes are like a not-vote vote, which is the same as someone in the U.S. choosing not to vote. It inflates participation rates and nothing more.
These mandatory voting pros and cons suggest that requiring people to vote can create more awareness of societal issues and increase participation rates. At the same time, compulsory voting may simply waste time and money for some voters because they show up to avoid a fine, but still don’t actually cast a formal vote.