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opinion

There are few obligations an individual has in a democratic society -- paying income tax, performing jury duty, upholding the law, defending your country when called on. Then there is protecting the right to vote, something over which countries and individuals have shed blood.

Astonishing, then, that so many people exercise their right not to vote. Some are indifferent to politics; some are protesting by refusing to participate. For others, it's about laziness and ignorance.

The United States has witnessed a steady decline in voter participation. Presidential elections now hit around 55 per cent of eligible voters, and congressional elections are usually 40 per cent or less.

Canada doesn't rank as badly. We usually reach 65 per cent to 70 per cent of eligible voters in federal elections. But there's been a disturbing downward trend in recent years. The 1980 federal election drew about 69 per cent of voters. This increased to about 75 per cent in the 1984 and 1988 elections, but 1993 saw a second drop (to slightly above 69 per cent) and a record low of 67 per cent in 1997.

Should Canadians accept this decline? Must we learn to live with the fact that some people don't vote? Canadians fought for the right to vote, and now we're walking away from our duty. Luckily, there are mechanisms that might correct this downward trend. The one I support is mandatory voting.

The very notion appears undemocratic. Yet about 20 countries -- including Argentina, Belgium, Egypt, Luxembourg and Uruguay -- use some form of it in certain elections. Australia has used it in federal elections since 1924. The country had experienced its share of both high and low turnouts. As noted in a 1995 study for the Australian government, those eligible to vote in elections between 1911 and 1924 "were compelled to enroll for federal elections, but voting itself remained voluntary."

But that changed with the passage of the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918. According to Section 101, all Australians 18 and older must apply for enrolment within 21 days of becoming so entitled or face a $50 penalty. Section 245 says a $20 penalty must be paid for failure to vote, unless a valid medical reason can be produced. Failure to pay the initial fine leads to a further penalty of $50, or possible imprisonment. Turnout in Australian elections now reaches around 95 per cent.

Should Canada create a mandatory voting system? Yes.

First, we could draw on the Australian model: Canadians 18 and over must register to vote or face a maximum penalty of $50 for the first offence, $100 for the second, and so on. A penalty of $50 for failing to vote could be used, and failure to pay this penalty could result in jail time or community service. These penalties are strict enough to attract a higher turnout.

Second, the creation of political education courses would help to increase voter comprehension of the issues. Every Canadian citizen 18 and over would be required to take a non-ideological basic course in politics -- parties, leaders, philosophies, policy positions, and so forth, perhaps via the Internet, CD-ROM or by correspondence. After all, we ask that people who want to drive a car take a course and pass a test; surely informed voters are at least as important to society as drivers who know their turn signals. Failure to pass the political education course would result in the withdrawal of the right to vote in a single election.

We need a more informed voting public. And we need voters who care enough and know enough to exercise their duty to vote. The key is mandatory voting. Michael Taube is a public affairs analyst.