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Compulsory and Voluntary Voting Policies in Democracy

Info: 3393 words (14 pages) Essay
Published: 11th Sep 2017 in Politics

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The right to a free and fair vote is a staple in the democratic process. However, there is debate over whether or not this process is best implemented when the population has the choice to engage in the political system or whether or not it should be mandated.[1] Many people claim that the best system to follow is the one that they are a part of, however in countries where different voting policies are implemented; there is empirical data that can be used to determine whether compulsory voting or voluntary voting produces better results and whether it tends to enhance the quality of democracy. Yet many people will still argue that just analyzing empirical data is not enough to determine whether or not compulsory voting more democratic due to intrinsic reasons. Both of these approaches make it difficult to discern whether or not compulsory voting is more democratically favourable however upon analysis of the two different voting systems, I have found that the arguments that oppose compulsory voting are not substantive enough to discredit the evidence as to why it does improve upon the essence of democracy. That is why in this essay I argue that compulsory voting does enhance the quality of democracy.

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What does it mean to “enhance the quality of democracy” and what is the importance of determining how to advance it? Democracy, at its most basic definition, means “the rule by the people”. When analyzing the quality of democracy of a state, what is being analyzed is how well the citizens of that state (the people) are represented in the policies that are passed. If the democratic representatives of the government pass laws that a majority of the people in the state do not want, then the quality of democracy is poor. It is not the people that are ruling in this case, but rather the elite few. The issue of compulsory versus voluntary voting is a very relevant issue in today’s day and age because a lot of people are disenfranchised by politics. People lose faith in their political system because they feel like they are not being represented. This in turn leads to a less politically active society which is not concerned by the issues that affect them and then often times their lives are made worse due to their lack of input in the policies that are passed. This circular downwards spiral further alienates people and future voters, demonstrating the need for maximizing representation in democratic political systems. The quality of the system cannot be improved until the people are represented to the nation’s fullest potential.

When analyzing which voting system would be the best to implement in order to enhance democracy, it is important to evaluate societies where these different voting styles are implemented. The American voting system is an ideal case study when considering the effects of voluntary voting. The United States and its citizens pride themselves on being a shining example of “freedom and democracy”. To many people across the world, it has become synonymous with the idea of a perfect democratic system which all other nations strive to achieve. However statistically, the vast majority of citizens in the United States are very poorly represented by their democratic government[2]. For example, a study done by Princeton and Northwestern Universities found that on economic policies, the policy preferences of the average citizen only get implemented less than 20% of the time while the policies preferred by business interests and economic elites are implemented the vast majority of the time, demonstrating how “the median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups”[3]. This in turn leads to the main flaw with the voluntary voting system. People refuse to be involved in the democratic process because they lose faith in their representatives. This in turn leads to worse social and economic situations for the majority of citizens in the state. The United States is a prime example of this. The United States has a relatively low election turnout rate, ranking 22nd in the modern world.[4] The United States is also has the highest total global personal wealth yet 80.56% of that wealth resides among the top few.[5] In fact, more than three quarters of all Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck.[6] With a voluntary voting system, the American government tends to leave the people behind in favour big money interests. A defining argument in favour of compulsory voting is that compulsory voting will alleviate the socio-economic inequalities in a society because if everyone voices which policies they want to see implemented into their law, then the politicians will be severely pressured into pushing for those policies if they wish to stay elected, and hence policies that benefit the majority of the people will be implemented.[7] Americans and others who believe in that voluntary voting is more beneficial than compulsory voting will refute this claim by stating that if you force non-politically active citizens to vote, you cannot infer that they will vote in their own interests because they would not have a good understanding on who to vote for to implement their ideas.[8] They claim that people who would stay home and not vote in a voluntary system would just vote arbitrarily in a compulsory system. The flaw with this objection is that it assumes that everyone who doesn’t vote does so because they have absolutely zero interest in voting. There are many reasons that people do not vote in a voluntary system other than being apolitical. For example, voting could be a large enough inconvenience for so poorer people so they decide to stay home.[9] People also choose not to vote even though they have policy opinions because they believe their vote is just one in a million so it doesn’t make a difference and furthermore could just lack the motivation to express vote.[10] If all these people were pressured to vote, the elected representatives would better represent the views of the overall population and democracy would be enhanced.

Australia’s voting system is the antithesis of America’s. If you are over 18, it is your legal duty to register to vote and to go the polls. Failure to do this will result in a fine and a potential day in court.[11] This form of pressure is meant to increase the participation levels in elections and better represent the will of the public. Multiple studies have been done checking if this theory translates to real world policy and they all come to the same conclusion:

[Compulsory voting] can increase the salience of elections and make voting more rational and meaningful and it can enhance and protect such values as representativeness, legitimacy and political equality. It also has the potential to break the counterproductive cycle of low efficacy, alienation, non-participation and state neglect that has led to an increasingly moribund political culture.[12]

The studies found that compulsory voting remedied one of the biggest problems with voluntary voting which is the Socio-economic status voting gap.[13] When observing the history of Australia’s voting population before the compulsory voting law was passed, it was revealed that turnout disproportionally represented those in higher socio-economic status while many people who were in a lower economic status abstained from voting for a various amount of reasons.[14] Many people who argue in favour of voluntary voting disagree with the idea that the socio-economic status voting gap should be addressed by compulsory voting because they claim that if people’s lives were already very burdensome so much so that they didn’t vote when they had the opportunity because it was so inconvenient, then there shouldn’t be a law that inconveniences them further by forcing them to vote.[15] The problem with this argument is that it misses the fact that people’s lives became less burdensome because of them being represented in their system[16], and so compulsory voting was for their own good, and hence the quality of democracy improved.

When evaluating whether or not compulsory voting enhances democracy, people who¬†support voluntary voting say that simply analyzing statistics is not enough. They claim that a reflection must be done on whether compulsory voting is right by the fundamental nature of democracy. One of the aspects in measuring the legitimacy of democracy is checking if there is “A free and independent citizenry”[17]. This means that the public has absolute freedom of speech and a right to protest, demonstrate, and preach with dissent from the government. The argument then comes up that abstention from voting is a form of expression, and therefore any attempt to remove this democratic right would be dictatorial and would actually be diminishing democracy, not enhancing it.[18] However, this claim is refuted by the idea of the social contract. The social contract is the pillar upon which authority is given legitimacy in a democratic state. By choosing to live in a democratic system, the collective is obligated to contribute to certain areas of society. As with paying taxes and jury duty, compulsory voting is just another duty that the citizens of a state are obligated to comply with under the social contract. Since the social contract is the strongest case made for accepting authority in a democracy, then having compulsory voting as a citizen duty would not tarnish the quality of a democracy because it would seen as legitimate. In countries like Australia where compulsory voting has become the status-quo, it is not thought of as dictatorial or tyrannical in anyway.[19] It has become a culturally accepted norm. However, countries where this idea is viewed as taboo would view this as an attack on freedom. A case study by Lisa Hill on America’s low voter turnout found that “the idea of being compelled to vote is anathema to many Americans and it would undoubtedly meet with vigorous resistance on a number of fronts”.[20] Unless there is a cultural shift that would allow the assimilation of these kinds of new ideas, compelling people to vote could possibly weaken the quality of democracy in countries like America because their citizenry would have a difficult time integrating it into their established system. However, there are ways to remedy these rejections of policy. Hill explains that methods that have been approached to improve public acceptance of compulsory voting were to clarify existing requirements, give the people optional preferential voting, and to expand the voters’ option for political expressions. The objections to implementing compulsory voting are rooted in status-quo biases and are under the assumption that it is not possible to change the cultural views of citizens on policies which have not been adapted yet. These objections falls flat due to these policies being implemented into other countries successfully through smart execution plans and therefore it has increased the quality of democracy, not decreased it.

Compulsory voting enhances the quality of democracy because it provides a better representation the needs of all the people in society. When analyzing a country without compulsory voting such as America, it is found that the views of the people are not what is represented by the policies that end up being passed because a large majority of the people who tend to be lower class do not engage in their political system. However, in a country that does have compulsory voting such as Australia, the socio-economic status voting gap is greatly diminished and the policies that end up being passed are more representative of what the people want. Many common objections to compulsory voting are that it is burdensome and it decreases freedom. These objections do not hold up because in countries where it is implemented, the system ends up benefitting more people and becomes culturally accepted to the point where it does not become an issue. Therefore, compulsory voting does end up producing better results and improves the quality of democracy.

Bibliography

Beck, Katie. “Australia election: Why is voting compulsory?” BBC News, August 27, 2013.

DeSilver, Drew. “U.S. voter turnout trails most developed countries.” Pew Research Center, August 02, 2016.

Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (2014): 564-581.

Heywood, Andrew. Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Sathel, Trevor. Pros and Cons: A Debater’s Handbook. London: Routledge. 1999.

Hill, Lisa. “Compulsory Voting in Australia: A Basis for a Best Practice Regime.” Federal Law Review 32 (2004): 479-497, http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/fedlr32&div=30&g_sent=1&collection=journals

Hill, Lisa. “Low Voter Turnout in the United States” Journal of Theoretical Politics 18(2): 207-232, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0951629806061868

Hill, Lisa. “Public Acceptance of Compulsory Voting: Explaining the Australian Case.” Representation 46:4 (2010): 425-438http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00344893.2010.518089

Johnson, Angela . “76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck.” CNNMoney, June 24, 2013.

Martin Gilens, and Benjamin I. Page. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (2014), 564-581.

Sherman, Erik. “America is the richest, and most unequal, nation.” Fortune, September 30, 2015.


[1] Trevor Sathel, Pros and Cons: A Debater’s Handbook (London: Routledge, 1999), 75.

[2] Martin Gilens, and Benjamin I. Page. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (2014), 570-577.

[3] Gilens and Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”572-573.

[4] Drew DeSilver, “U.S. voter turnout trails most developed countries.” Pew Research Center, August 02, 2016.

[5] Erik Sherman, “America is the richest, and most unequal, nation.” Fortune, September 30, 2015.

[6] Angela Johnson, “76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck.” CNNMoney, June 24, 2013.

[7] Gilens and Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”565.

[8] Gilens and Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”566.

[9] Gilens and Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”565.

[10] Gilens and Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”565.

[11] Katie Beck, “Australia election: Why is voting compulsory?” BBC News, August 27, 2013.

[12] Lisa Hill, “Low Voter Turnout in the United States” Journal of Theoretical Politics 18(2): 228. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0951629806061868

[13] Lisa Hill, “Compulsory Voting in Australia: A Basis for a Best Practice Regime.” Federal Law Review 32 (2004): 480, http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/fedlr32&div=30&g_sent=1&collection=journals

[14] Hill, “Compulsory Voting in Australia: A Basis for a Best Practice Regime.” 480.

[15] Sathel, Pros and Cons: A Debater’s Handbook, 75.

[16] Hill, “Compulsory Voting in Australia: A Basis for a Best Practice Regime.” 497.

[17] Andrew Heywood, Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 86.

[18] Sathel, Pros and Cons: A Debater’s Handbook, 75.

[19] Lisa Hill, “Public Acceptance of Compulsory Voting: Explaining the Australian Case.” Representation 46:4 (2010), 429, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00344893.2010.518089

[20] Lisa Hill, “Low Voter Turnout in the United States”, 228.

 

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