Let’s kick around the Liberals’ mandatory voting trial balloon

Is this the solution to the problem with our politics?
Federal Liberal Party leadership candidate Justin Trudeau takes part in the final leadership debate in Montreal, Quebec, March 23, 2013. The Liberals will vote for a new leader in April. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXXURG
Adrian Wyld/CP
Adrian Wyld/CP

In the late 19th century, our democracy was troubled—candidates were bribing electors to get them to the polls.

So in 1891, Guillaume Amyot, the MP for Bellechasse, stepped forward with a solution: mandatory voting. If citizens had to vote anyway, the logic went, there’d no longer be the need to entice them to do so. “The bill compels him to go there on his own responsibility, and relieves the candidates or the friends of the candidates, from paying any vehicle to transport him to the poll, or from paying for his day or half day that he may be off work to go to the poll,” Amyot told the House.

Eligible voters would be required to cast a ballot and failure to do so would result in a fine of $50. Anyone refusing to pay the fine could be imprisoned for 30 days or barred from voting for five years. Anyone who did not want to vote had until 30 days before an election to have their name removed from the list of electors.

As John Courtney and Drew Wilby explain in this 2007 piece, the bill was also touted by one supporter as a potential solution to the rampant impersonation of voters (note: it’s useful to periodically remind oneself what a gong show our democracy has been). You can read the initial debate of the bill here.

Though studied and amended by a House committee, Amyot’s bill was ultimately defeated. Nonetheless, we still somehow or another managed to eventually eliminate most explicit forms of bribery in the electoral process (promising to implement a tax credit is still allowed), arriving at a point at which our elections are basically free and basically fair.

And yet.

In the early 21st century, our democracy is troubled once more (still?). One possible solution: mandatory voting.

In an email to supporters late last week, the Liberal party sought out opinions on the possibility of making it mandatory to cast a ballot: “Do you support or oppose making voting mandatory? Under this system, voters would be allowed to mark “none of the above”, but those who fail to cast a ballot would receive a small fine. Mandatory voting is practiced in Australia and Singapore, among other countries.” Mandatory voting was also floated as a suggestion two months in a paper by Robert Asselin, an advisor to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. (Andrew Coyne argued for mandatory voting in a column in May.)

In the decades since Amyot’s proposal, various countries have adopted requirements to vote. Here is a briefing from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Here is an explainer from the Economist. And here is how Australia explains its own system. Former Liberal senator Mac Harb tabled a bill for mandatory voting in 2005, but after some debate the bill died without a vote. Here are a pair of Canadian academics kicking the idea around in 2010. Here is Peter Orszag, former budget director in the Obama administration, kicking it around in 2012*. And here is Susan Delacourt kicking it around this past weekend in the Star.

Are the Liberals going to go into the next election promising to make voting mandatory? We’ll see. Is it possible, as someone from another side pointed out to me, that the Liberals floated this in an email to party members because they knew reporters would see it and write about it? Maybe. Is that any reason to avoid kicking it around some more? Probably not.

So… is mandatory voting a good idea?

I suppose it depends on what you think you would accomplish by implementing it.

If you strongly believe, on principle, that voting should be the enforceable and preeminent duty of every adult citizen, like paying taxes, then mandatory voting makes sense. You’d still have to make sure it was implemented properly—with necessary exemptions and allowances and a properly calibrated penalty—but you’d at least have a straightforward reason for doing so.

Similarly, if you simply believe that more people voting is inherently good and righteous—that marking a ballot is an end in and of itself—then you might be able to push away any suggestions that requiring people to vote is a problematic idea.

Beyond that, mandatory voting is a trickier proposition.

Would it result in a more engaged and informed electorate? Would it improve—however you define improvement—the behaviour or performance of politicians and political parties? Would it result in a better political system?

Is there any evidence to suggest that mandatory voting has had such impacts elsewhere? Does Australia, for instance, have a situation that is obviously superior to ours? If so, can mandatory voting be credited with that? Are there not countries that have managed enviable democracies without mandatory voting?

These, I think, are the most relevant questions.

In Australia, about 72 percent of the public claims to be satisfied with their democracy. That’s rather higher than here, but also about where we were just ten years ago. At the same time, just six percent of Australians say they have a “great deal” of confidence in their federal parliament. Just 43 percent believe that who is in power makes a difference. And nearly 20 percent of eligible voters reportedly avoided voting in the last federal election.

Mandatory voting has been touted as a promoter of equality and linked with lower levels of wealth inequality, but I think researcher Sarah Birch makes an important point in this paper when she writes that, “full participation may go some way towards addressing some of the concerns of the alienated by providing politicians with greater incentive to engage with those concerns, but mandatory turnout should not be viewed primarily as a substitute for the reinvigoration of politics.”*

So… what do proponents of mandatory voting want to accomplish by implementing such a policy?

If it’s simply to enshrine the importance of voting, the debate is at least somewhat straightforward—albeit involving the principles and philosophies by which we implicitly and explicitly view the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a democracy. But if you imagine that mandatory voting will result in an improved political system, your argument is at least indirect—that more people voting will result in changes to the way politics is done that will result in a better system.

That’s certainly possible, but is it probable? Is it worth enforcing mandatory voting in merely the hope that it will improve matters?

If the problem here is that citizens are failing to sufficiently engage with the political system, mandatory voting is an obvious solution. If the problem here is that the political system is failing to sufficiently inspire citizens to engage with it, we might first try improving the political system. (I don’t like any of the proportional voting proposals I’ve seen, but such proposals at least aim to directly change the way the political system functions.) Create a parliament that better serves its country and perhaps you’d find that the public would be more interested in engaging.

In 1891, the problem was bribery. The solution was probably simply better enforcing laws against bribery. In 2014, what’s the problem? If it’s a political system that the public doesn’t have confidence in, the solution might simply be fashioning a system the public can feel better about.


*Within that piece, Orszag points to this op-ed, which includes the greatest twist on the mandatory voting idea: enter those who did vote in a lottery that rewards its winner with the money collected in fines from the people who didn’t vote. Alternatively, we could cut out the mandatory voting part and do as Bruce Hicks has proposed: pay people to vote.

**Birch also makes a point that needs to be noted: unless there is widespread support for the introduction of mandatory voting, its imposition might actually do harm to the system: “If compulsory turnout is highly unpopular among even a substantial minority of the electorate, this may in fact diminish the legitimacy of the democratic system, rather than improve it. Were the introduction of mandatory electoral participation to be accompanied by a widespread civil disobedience campaign, this would represent not only a formidable compliance challenge, but also a serious public relations issue for any government that had the temerity to go this route. In order to ensure that the legitimacy of such a reform was maximized, it would be best to introduce it only following a successful referencedum (cf Keaney and Rogers 2006).”