Forcing Ourselves to Vote

As fewer Canadians turn up at the polls, compulsory voting is a choice to consider.

[Sometimes events overtake our most careful editorial plans. In mid October, Calgary stunned the country by electing Canada’s first Muslim mayor, Naheed Nenshi, and voter turnout was an impressive 53 percent, up from a lacklustre 33 percent in 2007. Nevertheless, the issues surrounding compulsory voting remain pressing, so we press on. Editor]

Voting in elections, most of us would agree, is the absolute basis of democracy, the sine qua non of our form of government. Why, then, did only 59.1 percent of us vote in the last federal election in 2008?

Why did only 40.6 percent of eligible Albertans vote in their last provincial election? And don’t even ask about municipal elections, where a turnout in the low 20 percent range is not uncommon.

Other countries—30 across the globe—have made voting a compulsory act for their citizens, although only 17 of them enforce the law, with sanctions ranging from modest fines to jail time, from withholding government services to losing the right to vote altogether. South and Central America are particularly partial to mandatory voting, with 13 of their countries on side. Belgium, France and India are others in the club, but the one country Canadians could learn from most on this contentious matter is Australia, which has enforced compulsory voting since 1924.

The impetus for Australia’s move was a slide in participation from more than 71 percent in 1919 to less than 60 percent in 1922. As soon as a private member’s bill was passed making voting compulsory, the next election showed a turnout of over 91 percent and it has never fallen below 90 percent since that time. Moreover, polls taken by the Australian Election Study consistently show about 74 percent popular support for this citizen responsibility. Because of the secret ballot, of course, citizens cannot be compelled to mark their ballots with a choice. Rather, their duty is to show up at the polling station, receive a ballot and deposit it, marked or not, into the ballot box.

We accept other responsibilities as positive duties we owe to the Canadian democratic state (some with more grumbling than others): paying taxes, reporting for jury duty, wearing seat belts and attending school until the age of 16, for example. So why not a responsibility to vote along with our right to vote? The question would seem to have particular urgency since youth participation in the voting process is low and getting lower. Elections Canada estimated that less than 40 percent of eligible voters under 25 voted in the 2008 federal election.

The Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership and the Famous 5 Foundation, both based in Calgary, held a forum on this issue in April 2010 and have agreed to share their proceedings with the LRC’s readers. The first part of their event consisted of a debate between two political scientists, Steve Patten of the University of Alberta and Lisa Young of the University of Calgary. Here is an edited version of their discussion on compulsory voting.

STEVE PATTEN: Why is low voter turnout a concern? Quite simply, when citizens don’t vote, they are disengaged from an important aspect of political life. I am concerned that a generalized pattern of disengagement lowers our collective level of civic literacy, our knowledge about politics and our awareness of our communities. Moreover, as fewer and fewer people vote, elections are less legitimate. It seems particularly inappropriate to talk about political parties winning mandates to govern when the voter turnout drops below 50 percent.

But there is something more complicated and perhaps more important than that: when we have low voter turnout, our political parties start to behave differently. They begin to focus on the strategic management of those few voters who are turning out, rather than appealing to the broader electorate.

Consider what happened in the last Alberta election. With only 40 percent of Albertans voting, a majority government was formed with the active support of only 21 percent of eligible voters. In this context, major party strategists set aside high-minded commitments to speaking to the concerns of broad segments of society. The governing party in particular knows it can win simply by mobilizing its core supporters to get out on election day. Elections are no longer opportunities for political parties to engage people, discuss issues and share their ideas; instead, elections are all about party strategists identifying, mobilizing and managing their core supporters. This intense emphasis on voter management combined with declining civic literacy and engagement undermines the possibility of elections being moments of democratic civic dialogue.

LISA YOUNG: For me, the overarching concern—the one that gets me to a place where I can even think about arguing in favour of compulsory voting—is the pattern we know about who shows up to vote.

If only 40 percent of Albertans showed up to vote but they were a randomly selected 40 percent, I might be able to live with that. But we know from research in Canada and in other countries that nonvoting is not random. It is identifiable groups who do not show up to vote: disproportionately they are lower income, less well educated and increasingly young. And what that means is that many interests are being left off the table. The interests of young people cannot get addressed because parties can shrug their shoulders and say, “yeah, but young people don’t vote, so we don’t need to worry about them.” Or in a civic election I think candidates for mayor or for councillors can say, “You know, ­secondary suites [in single-family homes] might be an important issue, but we all know that renters don’t vote, right? It’s homeowners who show up to vote.”

PATTEN: In the mid 1990s Mike Harris recognized he did not need to win over Ontario to win elections; he simply needed to motivate and mobilize his core supporters. Indeed, in those days, there was a deep political division in Ontario and the Harris Conservatives were pursuing a strategy that involved angering their opponents and accentuating social conflict. Harris admitted this would lead to a wave of political protests, but he knew his supporters would feel threatened and, thus, motivated by the sight of protestors on the lawns of Queen’s Park. It was at that moment that Canadian political strategists realized victory did not necessarily require inclusive or consensual “big tent” politics. The issue of who votes became more important than getting everyone to vote.

YOUNG: So why consider compulsory voting? The answer, for me, is that the only way to get political parties to think a bit differently about the electorate and the only way to get them thinking about how to appeal to these people who don’t vote is to make those people voters.

If we think back to the last time that the electorate changed in a fundamental way, it was when we extended the vote to women. There was a remarkable time in Canada and the United States, right after women won the right to vote, when political parties were paying a lot of attention to the issues that they thought were important to women voters.

So if we were to implement some form of compulsory voting, all of a sudden there would be a whole bunch of potential votes up for grabs that parties would have no choice but to try to appeal to. They would have to say, “You know, that 18- to 25-year-old demographic that we’ve been writing off for years? They are going to show up and vote so that they don’t have to face the penalty, so let’s think about how we might engage with those ­voters.”

I am not absolutely convinced that that is what would happen. I think that even if it did happen the effect would wear off after a few elections. But maybe it is the shock to the system that we need. And I am willing to say that the problem is getting severe enough that it is time to apply the paddles to the patient and see what happens.

PATTEN: I am concerned that mandatory voting lets our political leaders off the hook. Low voter turnout is really the symptom, not the problem. One underlying cause of low voter turnout is that people feel disconnected from one another and their communities in our individualistic consumer society. Consumer identities are now more important than their civic identities. There are, in other words, socioeconomic causes of low voter turnout.

On the political side, it can be argued that citizens are disinterested in elections and party politics because our political parties are no longer open, democratic venues for political participation. Parties want their members to work on campaigns and make financial donations, but they are not deeply committed to being forums for civic engagement or policy dialogue.

Why would ordinary citizens choose to become engaged voters or get involved in partisan politics? Parties are not meaningfully connected to our community associations and civic groups. They don’t mobilize people and create a sense of space for democratic dialogue and participation. Our parties are failing us. As a result, if we make voting compulsory, we are addressing the symptom, but not the problem.

There are other concerns too. A society that respects civil and political freedom must protect citizens’ right not to vote. During wartime, when all the major parties are mobilizing around the war effort, conscientious objectors must be free to conclude that they could not vote for any political party. I once had a student who was a strong aboriginal nationalist. She refused to vote as her way of protesting against the legacy of colonialism. We must defend her right not to vote.

YOUNG: If we were actually seriously going to do this we would have to design a system that would give options to people who have legitimate objections to voting. But they are a small fraction of the non-voters.

I think that the folks at the mall, the people who are willing to vote for Canadian Idol but could not tell you who the prime minister is, are much more the people we need to be concerned about. There is a whole swath of the population that says, “I don’t understand the system, so I’m not going to go out and cast an uninformed vote, but I also don’t need to understand the system. I’m going to let myself off the hook and just not worry about it.” How do we get them engaged?

If I had a better suggestion than to use a stick instead of a carrot and say, “You must go out and vote and maybe you’ll inform yourself in order to do that,” I would certainly be arguing for that. But we have been talking about declining voter turnout for a long time and nobody has been able to turn the tide in the other direction.

PATTEN: You ask a question: how do we get people to engage? This is important. The search for meaningful engagement must be at the heart of this debate. My concern is that voting is not necessarily engagement. It is such an individualistic, momentary activity that it does not guarantee meaningful engagement. Compulsory voting gets people to the polls, but we could be letting the goal of engagement slip away in our pursuit of high voter turnout.

How do you get people to engage? There isn’t a simple legislative solution. Most of the big questions about democracy have to do with our political culture or the culture of parliament or the culture of political leadership. These are things that change through people pushing the system—people speaking out and bringing others along.

Political engagement is an aspect of civic engagement. It begins with increased awareness of issues, discussions of politics and people connecting to their communities. Going to a meeting or supporting a community event sounds distant from politics, but these are actually the kinds of things that begin to bring us into politics in more meaningful ways. Political parties must work harder to foster such engagement, but they are only one venue for engagement.

YOUNG: One of the things that does resonate through the research is people saying that they just did not know enough. They think that voting is a serious thing to do and you shouldn’t do it irresponsibly; you shouldn’t do it if you are not informed. So I do have this naive hope that compulsory voting might have the positive democratic effect of getting people to engage a little, to inform themselves, and that once you have done it a few times it becomes a habit.

The research suggests that if somebody votes the first time they are eligible to vote—the first election after they turn 18—then they are much more likely to vote in subsequent elections than if they missed that one. This tells us that voting is, as much as anything, a habit.

PATTEN: What concerns me most about compulsory voting, is that it would be an illusory solution to the problem. Addressing the symptom does not solve the deeper problems of civic engagement.

***

After the Patten-Young debate, participants at the Chumir forum divided up into roundtables and came up with their own interesting and original set of incentives and penalties that could be used to encourage fuller voter participation in Canada. Here are some of their suggestions.

Penalties

- Community service for non-compliance.
– Monetary fines for non-compliance (small ones, just enough for a wake-up call). Note: in Australia the fine is $20, roughly CA$19.
– Three strikes and you’re out—you lose your right to vote.
– A month’s delay on your driver’s licence renewal.
– Increased property taxes.
– Make non-voters work at the next election.

Incentives

- Give voters cookies and coffee, like at blood donor clinics.
– Encourage people to bring someone else with them when they come to vote, such as a son or daughter, or a neighbour.
– Give first-time voters a button or certificate to mark the event.
– Drive-through voting, especially for mothers with young children, maybe at Tim Horton’s.
– Polling stations in the malls.
– Electronic voting.
– Lower the voting age to 16 and make the whole process of elections part of the school curriculum, with polling booths right in the schools.
– Video-game voting with your favourite candidate as your avatar.
– Air Miles–type points for voting.
– A $10 gift certificate for voting.
– A tax break or credit if a certain percentage of voter turnout is reached (following the pattern of other positive behaviour that is rewarded through the tax system—e.g., home renovations, charitable donations).
– A day-long block party at the polling station.
– A statutory holiday on voting day.
– In-office polling booths.
– Putting referendums on the ballot so there is more to vote for than just candidates.
– Have people vote during the door-to-door census every five years by submitting a sealed ballot to save time and money, increase convenience and have fixed election dates.
– Don’t wait for the government to change the system … do it yourselves.