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“Ultimately, voting is a matter for the free will of the elector, and rightly so. Democratic engagement is a right, and perhaps a duty-but in a free society, it should be open to citizens not to take part if they do not wish to do so” (White and Young 2007, 7).
Voter turnout is considered a fundamental indicator of a healthy democracy (Center for Voting and Democracy 2010). The more citizens who vote, the greater the political participation of its citizens and in turn, the more vibrant its democracy. In 2008, 131 million Americans went to the polls to vote for the national elections (U.S. Census Bureau 2009). While this number indicated that 5 million more people went to vote for President and Vice President than in the 2004 national elections, statistically, there was no increase in the voter turnout. Compared to other nations in Europe, voter turnout in the United States is way lower. European nations come up with an average turnout of 80.2 percent while in the U.S., the number has not exceeded 60 percent.
Some political analysts attribute low voter turnout to public apathy and accuse non-voters of being lazy or too forgetful, however this is not always the case. The decision of non-voting is often a rational one – some do not vote because their interests are not being taken up by any of the candidates and still others do not vote because of the belief that one single vote has a negligible contribution to electoral outcomes. The decision not to vote can also serve as a statement of any citizen disgruntled with the electoral system in particular and with government in general. Liberal thinkers would consider this “free rider” phenomenon as an inevitable consequence of democracy – basically defined as a system where the rule of law and respect for human rights prevails (cite). Still, democratic societies like the United States have cause to worry over declining electoral participation. Participation in elections is declining in most advanced industrial countries. It is at its lowest in the United States (Samples 2004). Political analyst Curtis Gans refers to America as a “disintegrating democracy” because electoral participation is being undertaken by a zealous few (as cited in Samples 2004). Simply put, because majority of the citizens are abstaining their duty to vote, the very essence of representative democracy is eroded because electoral outcomes are not reflective of the preference of the majority (cite). It is argued that this in turn sparks crises of political legitimacy among governments.
Policy experts and legislators have gone increasingly wary over the dismal trend of voter turnouts which mirrors what is being referred to as “the paradox of voting” – the belief that rational people still go out to vote even if they really do not have to (cite). In 1990, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate concluded that “The United States is increasingly in danger of becoming a government of, for, and by the few” (1990: 585). Low and declining levels of voter turnout pose important dangers for the welfare of the American polity; domination by special interests, a decrease in the public’s will to hold officials accountable, and threats to voluntarism, orderly process, and political cohesion (Marien 2004: 85). The same worries are echoed in Britain where “little more than 20% of the electorate has voted for the winning party, as in the United Kingdom general election of May 2005” (Mount 2007). In this dismal electoral setup, “legitimacy begins to drain away” and what results is “an elective dictatorship” (Mount 2007).
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The voting paradox in America relates to the fact that while the country is the acknowledged bulwark of democracy, it is also where “â€¦.the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people can be fairly appreciated, where it can be studied in its application to the affairs of society, and where its dangers may be foreseen” (De Tocqueville 2003: 42). This contrasts with the experience of other more “established democracies,” (Center for Voting and Democracy 2010) like Australia, for instance, which has an average voter turnout of 90 percent. The difference may be attributed to the practice of compulsory or mandatory voting.
Compulsory voting is defined “as the legal obligation to attend the polls at election time and perform whatever duties are required there of electors” (Birch 2009: 2). The term is used interchangeably with mandatory voting. The practice of making electoral participation mandatory is gaining momentum. At present, there are over 29 countries in the world which make voting an obligation to its citizens – a duty with a corresponding sanction when neglected. Aside from Australia, countries such as Belgium, Cyprus, Singapore, Argentina, and Luxembourg have laws for compulsory voting. Major European countries such as France and Germany are currently studying the passage of compulsory voting laws to address declining voter turnouts (Malkoupoulou 2007:1). In the contemporary context, the policy of compulsion has been met with both welcome and resistance. The right to vote as a natural extension of democracy has been interpreted in contradictory ways. Dating back to the ancient Greek philosophers, suffrage has been emphasized primarily as a duty whereby all the qualified members of the polis should fulfill. The concept of participatory democracy also highlights the importance of the political involvement of the majority in democratic processes to provide legitimacy and representation to the government. Liberal philosophy contradicts the very suggestion of compulsion. Where the vote is a right, the concept of liberty commands that the non-vote is also a right and cannot be infringed upon by the state. Today, the issue of compulsion is introduced because of declining voter turnout in many countries. Public apathy is viewed to be curable by making voting a legal requirement (Birch 2009: 3). Many others view the practice of compulsory voting outdated, untimely, and an infringement on civil liberties.
Undoubtedly, the global political landscape has changed enormously. The challenges that confront states are not only theirs exclusively. In the increasingly interdependent world, governments are pressured to take on issues and problems that are of mutual concern to them – issues such as global terrorism, fundamentalism, and economic crisis. The need for governments to achieve legitimacy and representation through the electoral exercise has never been more important today. Governments have fallen into disrepute over the lack of public approval, presidents have not been reelected for another term [i] , and prime ministers have been forced to step down or been expunged because of public outrage over decisions.
Because the issue of compulsory voting is inextricably linked to how we conceive and understand democracy, it becomes important for us to judge the proposal for compulsory voting in this line: Is compulsory voting democratic? Or is it in itself an aversion to the basic tenets of democracy?
This paper wishes to probe deeper into these questions by analyzing democracy in its theoretical and practical dimensions. Theoretically, democracy is considered an ideal. [ii] No two of the greatest political thinkers have thought exactly alike on what democracy is. In the practical dimension, there has also been no consensus on how democracy should manifest itself in society.
This paper analyzes the issue of compulsory voting through a literature review of the works of some philosophers dating back to the ancient times into the contemporary world. I reviewed how philosophers have conceptualized the ideals of democracy, liberty, and equality and how their theorizing relates to the issue of compulsory voting. Ultimately, this paper concludes that while voting is an exercise of democracy and must be encouraged, the latter’s essence is founded on voluntary and not compulsory political participation and the free expression and exercise of rights, choice, and persuasion.
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