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Compulsory voting is a practice that requires citizens to vote in elections. If an eligible voter does not attend a polling place, they may be subject to punitive measures such as expiation or (rarely) imprisonment.
Arguments in favour of compulsory voting
There are a number of reasons why countries have chosen to implement compulsory voting.
The most commonly cited reason for compulsory voting is to guarantee that the government represents the will of the whole population, not merely those individuals who choose to vote. This helps ensure that governments are not neglecting those sections of society that are less active politically.
It is also argued that voting is a "civic duty", much like paying taxes, and that it is important for the continued functioning of the nation. People are required to pay taxes and sit on juries for the good of society; some feel that voting is another duty that all citizens should be required to perform.
Increased voter turnout reduces the cost of campaigning, and tends to reducing the influence of those who donate money to political parties.
Declining voter turnout in much of the Western world has led to an increased interest in compulsory voting to compensate for the apathy of the electorate. Apathy presents a potential danger to democracy, and governmental instability may result. It has been posited that the Holocaust occurred due to the apathy of the international community. This comparison, though extreme, demonstrates how inactivity could lead to tragedy.
In Australia, the initial reason for instituting compulsory voting was due to the immense loses suffered during World War I. Since 60,000 Australians had died defending freedom in World War I (the highest of any nation, per capita), it was argued that Australians had a duty to use those freedoms so dearly bought. Voter turnout has not dropped below 94% since the general election in 1955 (when it was approximately 88%).
Arguments against compulsory voting
Most countries do not have compulsory voting laws, and there are many people who object to them.
Some individuals resent the idea of being "forced" to vote, particularly if they have no interest in politics or have no knowledge of the individual candidates. Others may be well-informed, but do not have a true preference for any particular candidate. According to some commentators, such apathetic voters may vote at random simply to fulfill their obligation, with results not significantly different from the outcome under a voluntary (non-compulsory) system.
Libertarians and others often argue that compulsory voting is a violation of personal liberties, and that individuals should be free to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to vote. Some groups insist that low voter participation in a voluntary election shows widespread dissatisfaction with the political establishment in a country, a message that cannot be accurately conveyed when all citizens are required to cast a ballot.
Recently, political commentators have suggested that compulsory voting may skew the focus of a campaign towards swing voters, with candidates and political parties trying to win the votes of the undecided, rather than motivating their "base" supporters to the polls.
Countries with compulsory voting
Countries that have some form of compulsory voting:
- Australia (see the Australian electoral system)
- Belgium (see the Belgian electoral system)
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- Lebanon (compulsory for men only)
- Some parts of Switzerland
Countries that have ended compulsory voting:
In New Zealand (Aotearoa) eligible voters are required to register, but voting itself is voluntary.
Although voting in a country may be compulsory, penalties for failing to vote are not always strictly enforced. Sometimes this lack of enforcement is due to insufficient resources, as is the case in Argentina. In Australia, providing a legitimate reason for not voting may prevent the levying of a fine. If a non-voter is sanctioned with a fine, the amount is often small.
Penalties for failing to vote are not limited to fines and legal sanctions. Belgian voters who repeatedly fail to vote in elections may subject to disenfranchising. Goods and services provided by public offices may be denied to those failing to vote in Peru and Greece. If a Bolivian voter fails to participate in an election, the citizen may be denied their salary for three months.
Compulsory voting in non-democracies
Compulsory voting is common in states that attempt to create the illusion of democracy, while not actually being representative. Nations such as Iraq (under former dictator Saddam Hussein) or the communist regimes of Eastern Europe (during the Cold War) would hold elections and plebiscites, and mandate voting by the populace. These states would normally advertise near 100% turnout in these elections.
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