Friday, August 29, 2014

Should governments fight low turnout with compulsory voting?

Following the mere 36% voter turnout in May's European Union elections, many experts have asked how they can increase the number of people who make it to the polls. This is not only for future elections in the European Union, but also for local, regional and national elections all around the world.

Daniel Lobo

It's a common problem in many democratic nations and it's one that governing bodies need to address. There are at least two prominent strategies being discussed and both of these strategies can be used in tandem for the greatest impact. The first of these is to implement compulsory voting. 

If eligible citizens who do not exercise their right to vote are penalized in some way -typically through the application of fines- then the effective voter turnout rate should be practically 100%. In Belgium, where voting is compulsory, voter turnout is typically over 90%. Elected Government officials can then justifiably say that they represent the will of the people. 

When there is low voter turnout, as was the case with the EU, it can be argued that the elected officials are only representing the will of a select minority: those who actually made it to the polls to cast a ballot. 

On the other hand, the very spirit of democracy is based on the notion of personal freedom. If a free citizen is forced to vote, then he or she is no longer free. Indeed, the very act of abstaining to vote can be a political statement by itself.

The second big strategy being discussed is the increased adoption of technology in the electoral process, including e-voting technology for casting ballots, as well as the possible adoption of Internet voting. This would be particularly effective in reducing voter apathy among young people, as that demographic largely embraces e-voting. Members of the so-called Generation Y (or “Millennials”), as well as much of Generation X, grew up with technology being an integral part of their lives. They use the Internet and mobile devices on a daily basis to conduct the rest of their business, so why not include technology as part of exercising their democratic right to vote as well?

Indeed, Max Benwell of The Independent argues that these two strategies should be combined. He supports compulsory online voting as a means to “revolutionise the way our political system works.” If voting is mandatory, it may as well be convenient. “It would be quick and easy,” he writes, “with no more trudging down to your local polling centre.”

The use of Internet voting could be accompanied by a mobile app that can provide voters with more information about the platforms of each of the candidates. This way, they can make a more educated decision more easily. It is a sad state of affairs when more people (at least in the United Kingdom) are likely to vote on a reality TV talent show than they are to vote on who should represent them in government. A big part of that has to do with access and convenience. The democratic process needs to be secure, of course, but it also shouldn't feel like so much of a chore and a burden. Even if people don't want to vote, they should feel committed to do so. And maybe compulsory voting, perhaps with an option to cast a ballot online or by a more efficient and accessible e-voting system, is the way to improve the situation.