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Opinion Mandatory voting is still the best idea for democratic reform

Lori Turnbull is an Associate Professor at the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University. With Mark Jarvis and the late Peter Aucoin, she wrote Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government.

Democratic reform proposals are now common features in political campaigns in Canada. It has become the norm – and perhaps even the expectation – for political leaders, regardless of their partisan stripe, to offer at least one solid idea that would make democracy better.

Let's consider a few examples. When Paul Martin was campaigning to become leader of the Liberal Party and, by extension, prime minister, he argued that Canada was ailing from a "democratic deficit." He offered a six-point plan as a cure, which included a stronger role for backbench MPs, a more effective committee system, and more free votes for MPs, during which they could vote as they desired without fear of reprimand from the leader.

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When Stephen Harper's Conservatives formed their first government in 2006, they delivered on their promise to introduce a Federal Accountability Act that included, among other things, a new Parliamentary Budget Office to provide information and analysis on how the government manages our money. The Conservatives also passed a law setting fixed dates for federal elections, which garnered unanimous support in the House of Commons on the grounds that fixed dates would serve the democratic purpose of constraining the power of the prime minister to call an election whenever it suited him.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's decision to remove senators from the Liberal caucus was framed as an effort to build a more democratic Liberal Party: There are no longer any unelected members of the Liberal caucus. Further, now that the formerly Liberal senators no longer caucus with Liberal Members of Parliament and are therefore free from the shackles of party discipline, they are able to act independently.

The new leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, Jim Prentice, has advocated term limits for elected representatives and premiers. He's assessed term limits as being "very democratic" because they guarantee "turnover in the political process." Although the constitutionality of this proposal has been questioned, it's clear that Mr. Prentice offers it with the intention of boosting the democratic health of Alberta's legislature.

Not all democratic reform ideas ever bear real fruit, even when they are put into law. Mr. Martin's term as prime minister did not result in a proliferation of free votes. And, since the passing of the fixed date election law in 2007, we've had two federal elections – neither of which was held on the scheduled fixed date. Although Mr. Trudeau's intention might have been to "liberate" formerly Liberal senators and allow them to be independent, they've continued to function as a caucus in their own right, pretty much as they always did. It's too early to tell whether Mr. Prentice will pursue term limits, either in law or via informal party practice.

While democratic reform has been on the political agenda for years, it's not clear that voters care much about it. The truth is that, in general, the reform measures discussed here so far could be described as elite-driven and elite-centric: they're more about the politicians themselves than about the people. They are designed to change the way politicians govern themselves, perhaps for the better. But in a democracy like ours where voter apathy is a problem, the likelihood is that few people have noticed a change in their daily lives as a result of free votes in the House of Commons, or a report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer, or the fact that Justin Trudeau kicked the senators out of caucus.

To describe these reforms as "elite-centric" is not really a criticism, by the way, because elite-centric reforms can (and sometimes do) have benefits for everyone. But they are not "citizen-centric" in the sense that they don't actively engage citizens. Even fixed elections don't offer any kind of special or enhanced role for citizens: they just give us a schedule (and an optional one, apparently).

But here's a relatively old idea that's being given new attention in Canada and that could serve as an antidote to an ailing participatory democracy: mandatory voting. The Liberal Party has asked its supporters for feedback on the concept of imposing a small fine for failing to vote. In some ways, this is sad: democracy is in such abysmal shape in Canada that people are talking about using the law to compel participation. But perhaps it's not such a bad idea. Those who previously abstained would be forced to cast ballots and they might think, "I've got to vote anyway; I might as well find out what this is all about and make an informed choice." Last month in the Toronto Star, Susan Delacourt suggested that this is a possibility and, if Canada ever adopts mandatory voting, I hope she's right.

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Unfortunately, it's also a possibility that former non-voters would resent being bribed to participate in what they take as a shallow and meaningless exercise. It's also possible that people who have always voted would take offence at being told to do so (just because you vote doesn't mean you think you have to). If these things were to happen, democratic morale might actually get worse – even as voter turnout soars. Then mandatory voting becomes a troublesome mask for the reality of voter apathy.

If mandatory voting were to be implemented without a serious education strategy that explained to citizens the genuine rationale behind it – to invigorate democracy in Canada – then the whole thing would become another elite-driven exercise, and a cynical one that does little more than attempt to legitimize an election result with a turnout that is high because it's contrived. My hope is that if we pursue mandatory voting, we take the time to do it right. The stakes are too high not to.

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