Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mandatory voting should come with more voting options

In Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address, he spoke about the importance of having a government “of the people, by the people [and] for the people.” That second aspect is positively crucial in a democracy, because it means that government officials and selected and elected by the country's citizens. While it may not have necessarily been the case in Lincoln's day, in a modern democracy, this also means that the government should not be elected by a select few, but rather by the population at large. Voters should come from all walks of life, from all sorts of demographics, such that all of their interests are suitably represented in government.

Gage Skidmore
However, a democracy is only as strong as the people who vote within it and low voter turnout continues to be a problem in many parts of the world. It was experienced in the recent European Union elections, just as it is a problem in the United States. In Canada, the federal Liberal Party is considering mandatory voting as means of eliminating the problem of low voter turnout. 

The idea of instituting compulsory voting was previously explored in this blog not that long ago. There are certainly proponents and opponents of such a system and both its merits and disadvantages need to be carefully scrutinized before mandatory voting is implemented in any democracy. However, if the law requires that all eligible citizens must cast a ballot in federal elections, then an infrastructure needs to be put in place to best facilitate the vote.

Traditional paper ballots submitted at traditional voting places that citizens must visit in person would likely not be sufficient and it would not be the most convenient. As many of these polling stations already struggle with efficiency and with the exceptionally long waits experienced in many parts of the United States, it is clear that managing a near 100% voter turnout under the current system would result in chaos. The logistics are not there.

In the case of Canada, voter turnout got as high as almost 80 percent in 1958, but it has since dropped significantly down to under 60 percent in 2008. By contrast, voter turnout in Australia is consistently around 95 percent and that's because mandatory voting has been in place in Australia since 1924.

Looking ahead to the future, election officials and government representatives need to consider more efficient and convenient voting methods. Direct recording electronic voting machines at physical polling places is a good place to start, as the electronic machines theoretically never run out of ballots and can handle a theoretically infinite volume. The electronic nature of these voting machines may also be more approachable by young people, who are far more accustomed to smartphones, tablets and other consumer electronic devices. 

Many other government operations that are mandatory among citizens can be completed in an efficient and secure manner through online portals. All citizens must file their income tax returns each year, for example, and Canadians can do so through the Internet. The same idea can be implemented when it comes to federal elections, utilizing similar or even more advanced methods for voter identification and verification. 

Online voting may not be the “magic bullet” for improving voter turnout, but it can provide a more easily accessible means for citizens to cast their ballot from the comfort of their homes, offices or even mobile devices. When everyone votes, then the government is truly elected not only by the people, but by all the people.