If you’re like most people, you’d likely laugh off the idea of compulsory voting as completely strange if not downright preposterous. But you would be surprised to find out that many countries around the world are already penalizing citizens for not exercising their right to vote. Australia, in fact, has had compulsory voting for 101 years!
In an effort to curb voter apathy and increase turnout, the Australian Election Commission under has resorted to slapping election boycotters with fines. Although the 20AUD penalty probably won’t bankrupt anyone, it does goes against the common belief that exercising or not one’s right of suffrage is a choice which the voter makes all by himself.
But why did high voter turnout become such a Holy Grail that Election Commissions are bending over backwards to achieve it? Why is it terribly important that a large numbers of voters cast their ballots?
Low turnout equals a smaller mandate for the elected officials. With no overwhelming majority of the electorate casting their ballots, doubts could be raised about the elections not reflecting the actual will of the people. Needless to say, this is a situation that any Election Commission would rather not find itself in.
Aside from achieving high turnout, proponents of compulsory voting argue that is a civic duty very much like paying taxes, jury duty, or military conscription. Moreover, they aver that compulsory voting guarantees that the entire electorate is involved in policy formulation. Another important consideration is the way compulsory voting frees the candidates to focus on issues rather than encouraging voter participation.
Proponents also claim that since voting is by secret ballot, the voter isn't actually forced to vote for anyone and that no liberties are violated.
Opponents, on the other hand, argue that compulsory voting is undemocratic as it impinges on one’s liberty to decide on his own whether or not to exercise the right to suffrage. More insidiously, forcing everyone to vote means the ill-informed and those with terribly low interest in governance are also forced to participate which could lead to increased number of “donkey votes” and informal votes. Ironically, this could also result in an election that does not truly reflect the will of the electorate.