Does mandatory voting restrict or expand democracy?

by Wael Abdel Hamid // Published October 18, 2010

Does mandatory voting restrict or expand democracy? For many people who have never heard about the idea, mandatory voting sounds very strict: requiring people to go to the polls on Election Day. In the United States, it seems strange to present an action many consider a right as a required duty. Nevertheless, in many foreign countries, mandatory voting (sometimes referred to as compulsory voting) is an obvious democratic option.


The system in fact is present in more than 30 democracies around the world. However, all policies are not the same. Mandatory voting can be used to elect all political representatives or it can be restricted to specific elections.  For example, in France, mandatory voting is only used for Senatorial elections. 


The two most notable examples of compulsory voting occur in Belgium and Australia. Belgium has the oldest tradition of compulsory voting system. The system was introduced in 1892 for men and 1949 for women. Today, all Belgian citizens age 18 or over have to vote in every electoral event. If an individual fails to vote  in at least four elections , he or she  lose the right to vote for the next 10 years and  as a result face  a general social stigma and specific problems like near impossibility in having a job in the public sector. In Australia, compulsory voting was adopted as a way of integrating the large population of immigrants that the country welcomes and is endorsed through non-voters facing potential fines.


Many people compare voting to taxes.  In fact, one of mandatory voting’s biggest advocates, former American Political Science Association president Arend Lijphart, uses this comparison in his writings like Patterns of Democracy. According to him, just as taxes are a way to feed the national economy, voting can be seen as a way to feed the civic economy. Moreover, when compelled to vote, citizens begin to be more involved in political life and in turn are encouraged to take a more active role in other areas of civic society. And no other change comes close to having as sweeping an impact on rates of voter participation.


 Given Lijphart’s arguments, would compulsory voting make sense in the United States? Not necessarily--   for many Americans the right to vote also implies the right not to vote.  In fact, some people might even interpret mandatory voting as a violation of First Amendment’s prohibition of compelled speech. Moreover, mandatory voting opposition argues that a forced electorate would not necessarily be the most politically intelligent electorate.


Some apolitical citizens might choose candidates arbitrarily or for the wrong reasons because they do not want to be fined or punished for not doing their hypothetical duty.  Finally, voters in fact gain a certain kind influence from their ability not to vote – elected officials can’t take their vote for granted.


Whether you are an advocate for or against mandatory voting, the concept is a thought provoking idea that should not be overlooked just because it seems so foreign to the United States.  But it should never be used to avoid tackling the root of political disengagement.  


Democracies don’t just need active citizens; they need educated and active citizens, which is why at FairVote we advocate for strong learning democracy programs for students.  Americans also need faith in the power of elected officials to represent them effectively and the motivation that comes from elections having real choices from across the spectrum. Such changes can’t happen overnight, the way passage of compulsory voting could take place. But they are essential building blocks of a successful democracy.