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The Globe and Mail

Mandatory voting cons: More voters doesn't mean increased awareness

If anyone was looking for a foolproof way to ensure that every Canadian of voting age did, you would think it would be Taylor Gunn.

Mr. Gunn is the founder of Student Vote, a group that educates young people about democracy by helping to organize mock elections in Canadian schools in advance of actual elections, like the one on May 2.

But mandatory voting - the requirement to cast your ballot or face a penalty - is, for Mr. Gunn, a tool of last resort at best.

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"I'm worried that it could lead to cheaper politics. Imagine an uninformed electorate threatened to go to the polls by threat of fine," he says.

That mandatory voting has come up in this campaign is no surprise. Turnout is declining, and a first-past-the-post system means many votes will not affect the outcome anyway.

If higher turnout rates on election day are the only goal, then mandatory voting is indeed the best, if crudest, response - it has been found to increase turnout by around seven to 16 percentage points once it's been implemented. But for those who think our democratic ills run deeper, mandatory voting doesn't provide many answers.

Alison Loat, executive director of Samara, which studies citizen engagement with Canadian democracy, is skeptical. "I'd rather figure out why people are not voting, and what can we actually do to address the causes of that, rather than just address the symptoms," she says.

And mandatory voting is not a real cure. It is not the gateway to more knowledge about politics or greater civic participation. It may not change the ultimate outcome. It tramples on another right that has become, like it or not, a democratic inheritance: the right to tune out, to disengage, without the state chasing you down.

Mandatory voting has roots in ancient Greece; Aristotle reported that richer citizens who did not attend the assembly in their city could be fined. It became law in Australia in 1924, and is in practice in around three dozen countries today.

It has never taken hold in Canada. In the 1890s, Quebec MP Guillaume Amyot proposed mandatory voting to ensure "purity in politics" by fighting the bribery and bootlegging that accompanied contemporary attempts to coax voters to the ballot boxes. The proposed sanctions? A $50 fine (equivalent to over $1,000 today) and up to 30 days in jail. Mr. Amyot's bill failed.

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Mandatory voting needs that heavy hand, says political scientist Costas Panagopoulos of Fordham University in New York. He studied 60 elections in the 1990s that featured mandatory voting, and found only those that have harsh, enforced penalties, such as the possible loss of public-service jobs or a prison sentence, yield large increases in turnout.

But any price for not voting may simply be too high a price to pay.

John Courtney, senior policy fellow at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, agrees that those who don't vote are not fulfilling their democratic responsibilities. "But if a person doesn't like the candidates, policies, leaders or parties, why force that person into doing something he or she doesn't want to do?" he asks.

Comparisons with Australia, where around 95 per cent of the country votes, can be misleading, Prof. Courtney says. Canadians are less tolerant of state intrusion than people in Australia.

Now that the Conservative Party has awakened Canadians to the risks they would have taken in not filling out the long-form census, is the country ready for rules with new punishments around voting? It seems doubtful. The result would be, in Prof. Courtney's words, a "large systemic shock to our civic culture."

Would mandatory voting make our elections more representative, as the poor and the young would be forced to turn out? Perhaps, but with no underlying changes in the party standings: The Canada Election Study of the 2000 federal election found "scant evidence for a partisan effect of turnout in Canada."

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The strongest argument against mandatory voting may be that it doesn't create what might be called "civic learning." In Western Europe, voters in countries with mandatory voting are no more interested in politics, and no more likely to discuss it at their dinner tables.

And in one sense, mandatory voting can depress participation, argues Prof. Courtney - it makes political parties less responsive to constituents, because they no longer have to do the hard work of knocking on doors to convince voters to come out on election day.

The path forward for better elections - as opposed to better turnout - may be a carrot, rather than a stick. Across Canada, citizens are coming together to highlight the importance and consequences of voting, whether it's vote mobs on university campuses or associations that organize all-candidates forums.

"I think the smartest investment we could make in the future of our democracy is civic education," says Mr. Gunn of Student Vote. "If we build that up, we don't need mandatory voting."

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version incorrectly stated that Australia has a national citizenship card. In fact, it has an optional ID card for those without driver's licenses and passports. This online version has been corrected.

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