Mandatory voting is a bad idea

| October 28, 2011 | 0 Comments

Troy Media – by Pat Murphy

With recent elections producing turnouts below the historical norm, the question of mandatory voting has reared its head again. But it’s an irredeemably bad idea, a perfect example of a solution in search of a problem.

Voting in Canada isn’t difficult. Anyone with even a marginal interest knows when there’s an election going on, polling stations are accessible, voting hours are extended, and there are advance polls for those for whom election day might be inconvenient.

Too many “inappropriate” people voting

Indeed, if anecdotal evidence is of any value, the problem isn’t too few people voting as much as it is inappropriate people voting. Stories turn up in the letters pages of non-citizens casting ballots, actively or passively facilitated by elections staff.

Non-voting is often ascribed to alienation or apathy. However, it’s difficult to see how forcing the alienated or apathetic to vote is going to enhance their level of attachment to the system. More likely, the only thing it’ll increase is their level of resentment.

Of course, the argument can be made that mandatory voting would be combined with a reform of the electoral system, replacing our current first-past-the-post with some form of proportional representation (PR). In theory, this’ll address the “my vote won’t make any difference” complaint that allegedly underpins much of the alienation and apathy.

But whatever the theoretical merits of PR, the simple fact is that the broad mass of voters are less than enamoured of the concept. Over the past several years, whopping majorities in Ontario, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island have turned thumbs down on PR proposals.

Then there’s the question of what the non-voters’ disengagement really means. Perhaps it’s not always a matter of alienation or apathy. Maybe some people just don’t see politics as the appropriate mechanism for addressing the things that matter most to them. After all, elections don’t always involve transcendental social issues.

What about social cohesion? Wouldn’t mandatory voting’s higher turnout ensure a greater degree of legitimacy for the ensuing government, thereby rendering the overall society more cohesive?

Maybe, but maybe not. Indeed, to the extent that mandatory voting encourages people to seek political recourse for all of life’s difficulties and disappointments, it could have a profoundly disruptive effect on social cohesion. After all, politics is often a zero-sum game where one group’s gain is another group’s loss.

At bottom, the case for mandatory voting implies that casting a ballot is an inherently virtuous act. However, to borrow a phrase from the Gershwins, “it ain’t necessarily so.”

Voting certainly can have an altruistic dimension. Thinking only of the greater good, you weigh the issues and then mark the ballot appropriately.

Or the franchise can be exercised in a prudential spirit, making a choice calculated to ensure that the victors will do minimal damage to the things you hold dear. That can be described as enlightened self-interest.

Or you can vote with a view to obtaining some direct personal benefit. The fact that it may entail the government taking something from someone else and giving it to you – or circumscribing someone else’s freedom to your advantage – is of no matter. Although voting makes that legal, it’s still self-aggrandizing.

Note that this isn’t an argument against voting. Personally, I always choose to vote. But the operative word is “choose.” Virtue, civic or otherwise, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it.

There’s also the sheer prissiness of the mandatory idea. We have no shortage of people who wish to nag and regulate, always ostensibly for our own good. And given that we live in complex interdependent societies, some of this is even necessary.

A hint of self-righteousness

But the urge to wag the finger and boss us around is potentially insatiable. After mandatory voting, there’ll be new frontiers to conquer, other areas in which compulsory behaviour modification is deemed necessary. Perhaps it’s time to start establishing boundaries.

Mind you, we’ll be told that some other countries have mandatory voting. Australia is the popular current example.

Now there’s a lot to be said for Australia and Australians. They’re a generally convivial lot, they make good wine, they have first-class cricket and rugby teams, and they enjoy a mostly benign climate. Enviable attributes all, but not sufficient reason to copy their voting laws.

Pat Murphy is a history and economics graduate from University College Dublin, Ireland. He has contributed articles to the National Post, History Ireland, Irish Connections Canada, and Breifne.

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