The Right not to Vote – Why Compulsory Voting cannot save Democracy

In recent years broad debates about the state of representative democracy have reemerged. In stark contrast to the euphoric period after the end of the Cold War, the triumph of democracy in Eastern Europe and Latin America and the postulated End of History (Fukuyama, 1992), the political science community is now debating if representative democracy is again in a state of crisis. The decline in turnout experienced in most democracies around the world is probably the most cited evidence in favour of this argument. In a similar fashion the argument was made that compulsory voting is an adequate instrument to solve not only the problem of declining turnout but also to improve the quality of democracy.

It has been argued that compulsory voting can not only raise turnout, but can also improve social inclusion and increase the quality of democracy. The proponents also argue that compulsory voting is a reasonable instrument since its effects are direct and it is easily realizable. Challenging this argument, some political scientists maintain that compulsory voting not only has no effect on the quality of democracy and inclusiveness, but that compulsory voting threatens the „right not to vote“ (Lever, 2009) and therefore a central freedom granted by democracy.

The rule of the organised minority over the unorganised majority

One argument the proponents of compulsory voting often cite, is that lower turnout leads to the rule of the organised minority over the unorganised majority. Mount (2006) for example points out that „when little more than 20% of the electorate has voted for the winning party, as in the United Kingdom general election of May 2005, legitimacy begins to drain away“. Already in 1986 Dieter Nohlen argued that „if less than 40% of voters (29% of the population eligible to vote) can win out over the remaining 60%, then this is not only problematic for representation but is also questioning central civil liberties“ (Nohlen, 1986, p.134). Another argument made in the same respect is that not only the legitimacy is in danger, but that the bureaucracy somehow assumes a separate existence and will challenge the democratic order. Ultimately, this could lead to an undermining of democracy termed „executive democracy“ or „elective dictatorship“ (Mount, 2006). While the argument that, if turnout is low, a relatively small minority can rule over a majority truly can be problematic for the legitimacy, there are three points I would identify.

First, both Nohlen and Mount only take the British electoral system into account, which differs significantly from other systems in continental Europe.

Second, to reduce the legitimacy and quality solely on high turnout fails to recognize the highly complex process of democratic decision-making. A good example is the Austrian legislative process, where a large number of bills are supported not only by the government, but also by the opposition (Austrian Parliament, 2015). Therefore a large part of decisions by the government is backed by the opposition, ultimately representing a majority of the eligible population.

Third, not every abstention is an expression of mistrust over the prevailing order. According to rationalistic approaches, citizens may also abstain, depending on how high they believe their chances are to influence the election outcomes in their own interest (Cabarello, 2014). Thus citizens may abstain either if they believe that their preferred choice has no chance or conversely if they believe that their preferred choice will ultimately win even without themselves going to the polls. Hence, it is questionable to reduce the democratic legitimacy only on turnout rates. Additionally, voters do not always vote in their rational self-interest (Lever, 2009). This is particularly important since „it is age and education, rather than race, income and wealth“ which determine if someone attends the polls (Lever, 2009, p.60). Therefore, the causal relation between higher turnout and better representation may not be as clear as Nohlen and Mount argue.

Low turnout is unequal turnout

Another argument made in favour of compulsory voting is that lower turnout is reinforcing unequal turnout. Lijphart (1997, p.2), one of the first to discuss the problem of unequal participation, mentions in his article Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma that „low turnout is unequal and socioeconomically biased turnout“. It is unequal since the abstention rate is not distributed evenly, the difference in turnout is particularly big when age and education is considered. Birch (2009) reports that in the 2005 General Election in Great Britain, the turnout in the 18 to 25 age group was just 37%, while the turnout for voters over 65 years old was 75%. Additionally, the gap in turnout rates between age groups is widening. The same pattern, even though to a lesser degree, also applies to the level of education. Keaney and Rogers (2006) find that the gap in turnout rates between people without a formal degree and people with high-level degrees is increasing. To conclude, if some groups tend to abstain from voting more often than other groups, lower turnout rates will produce even stronger biased participation rates. Thereof the problem arises that some groups are not included in the political process. This political exclusion reproduces and also reinforces the social inequality. Accordingly, authors like Lijphart (1997), Birch (2009) and Hill (2011) argue that if the socially disadvantaged tend to abstain more often then they will not be able to influence decision-making in their favour. This can leave the most marginalised even more deprived and further alienated and dissociated from the political order. This is where compulsory voting would take effect, at least according to Lijphart, Birch and Hill.

While the relation between low turnout and unequal turnout is not contested, some central aspects of the argument depicted above are challenged by authors like Lever (2009), Singh (2011) and Panagopoulos (2008). Lower turnout is associated with more unequal turnout, the evidence presented above viably supports this statement. However, to argue that increasing turnout would lead to more political inclusion and a better representation for the marginalised is more uncertain.

Lever (2009) for example argues that the „paradigmatic instances of social democracy – Sweden, Norway (…) and Finland – do not have ompulsory voting and, indeed, appear to suffer from the same worries about declining voter turnout and indifference to the major political parties which trouble countries with more free-market economies“(p.63).

This argument is supported by the findings of Pettersen and Rose (2007). They report that higher turnout would only have a marginal effect on electoral outcomes and „neither large parties, smaller parties or parties on the left and right wings of the political spectrum would have benefited markedly had there been a higher level of turnout“(p.585). Following the logic applied by Lijphart, Birch and Hill, one would expect gains for social democratic parties, however, as Pettersen and Rose (2007) and a study by Selb and Lachat (2007) display, higher turnout has no evident effect on electoral outcomes. This is probably due to the fact that as already noted „voters do not always vote on their self-interest“ (Lever, 2009). Additionally, even if voting is compulsory, there is no noticeable effect on political knowledge or interest (Lever, 2009; Loewen et al., 2008). Therefore, arguing that higher turnout through compulsion will help achieve greater political and social inclusion does not seem to be a viable strategy. On the contrary, odds are that being forced to attend the polls will make people feel even more alienated by the political order and making voting compulsory „would certainly remove the very indicator which has helped kick-start the current debate about political engagement“ (Ballinger, 2006, p.22). Compulsory voting is problematic in another respect, contrary to the argument that through compulsion more deprived people would vote and therefore political parties would need to address the interests of this group more thoroughly, Lever (2009) and Ballinger (2006) argue that compulsion would make it easier for parties „to target swing seats or constituencies“. Hence, compulsory voting would have the contrary effect and would leave the socially disadvantaged even more disengaged with the political process.

Furthermore, if compulsory voting only is effective if „both penalties and the likelihood of enforcement are high“ (Panagopoulos, 2008) then this would affect the disadvantaged disproportionately.

The pros and cons of compulsory voting are still vividly discussed in the political science community as this article has shown. Even though the proponents of compulsory voting are adamantly arguing that compulsory voting is the best cure for the negative effects of lower turnout on democracy, I cannot find any positive effects on democracy apart from higher turnout rates. While the positive effect of compulsion on turnout rates can be regarded as scientifically proven, it cannot cure the causes of declining turnout. There is no effect on social or political inclusion, it does not heighten peoples’ political interest or knowledge and it may even reinforce feelings of alienation and disintegration. Therefore, alternative measures like lowering voting-barriers, holding elections on weekends or intensifying and broadening political education may prove more efficient than compulsory voting.

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