Should we be forced to vote?

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - THE WEST - HEATHER MAC­IN­TOSH

AT 40.6 per cent, Al­berta, in 2008, had the low­est voter turnout ever in a Cana­dian pro­vin­cial elec­tion. That sounds even worse when we con­sider that PEI’s turnout, the year be­fore, was 84 per cent. Such dis­mal elec­toral par­tic­i­pa­tion makes it time to con­sider manda­tory vot­ing in Al­berta.

While elec­tion leg­is­la­tion across the coun­try grants cit­i­zens the right to vote, or not, vot­ing it­self is con­sid­ered a civic re­spon­si­bil­ity rather than an obli­ga­tion. Wor­ry­ingly, how­ever, both across the coun­try in fed­eral elec­tions and es­pe­cially in Al­berta pro­vin­cial elec­tions, there has been a 20-year trend in de­clin­ing voter par­tic­i­pa­tion. Some peo­ple main­tain that voter turnout is an ac­cu­rate re­flec­tion of the pub­lic’s in­ter­est in pol­i­tics. It is dif­fi­cult, how­ever, to de­ter­mine whether the low voter in­ter­est stems from dis­ap­point­ment with the candidates, the ap­par­ent im­pos­si­bil­ity of change, tech­ni­cal­i­ties such as in­com­plete voter lists or com­plete dis­en­gage­ment from the po­lit­i­cal process. But at­tempts to ar­ti­fi­cially al­ter voter turnout could mask deeper is­sues of demo­cratic deficit and could be counter-pro­duc­tive in the long-run.

Our free­doms are not to be taken lightly, and we should be re­luc­tant to em­brace any mea­sure that forces us to do any­thing against our will, in­clud­ing vot­ing. There comes a point, how­ever, when one’s in­di­vid­ual right to be ap­a­thetic im­per­ils our col­lec­tive right to a demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ment with a le­git­i­mate man­date from the pub­lic.

To sat­isfy those who be­lieve cit­i­zens in a democ­racy have the right to choose not to vote, the op­tion of vot­ing for “none of the above” could be added to bal­lots. This is used in some coun­tries which have com­pul­sory vot­ing laws. Pre­sum­ably, it makes politi­cians squirm but adds real choice to the bal­lot un­der a forced-vot­ing sce­nario. An­other al­ter­na­tive prof­fered in the UK is a law re­quir­ing peo­ple to show up at a polling sta­tion on elec­tion-day, but not nec­es­sar­ily to cast a bal­lot.

Democ­racy is founded on the no­tion of ma­jor­ity rule, and this is more than a num­bers game. Ob­vi­ously, we have ac­cepted a man­date from a mi­nor­ity of vot­ers in Al­berta. In fact, many small town and county elec­tions across Canada are de­cided fully by ac­cla­ma­tion and Cal­gary’s low­est turnout was 20 per cent in the 2004 mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion.

But is there a num­ber on elec­toral par­tic­i­pa­tion for a na­tion, a prov­ince, or a city be­low which a gov­ern­ment can­not le­git­i­mately claim to rep­re­sent the peo­ple? What would we do if no one came to vote?

What do we do when we have “gov­ern­ment for the peo­ple” but no longer one that is “of the peo­ple, by the peo­ple?” We haven’t yet reached this point in Al­berta, but we are get­ting close. Does com­pul­sory vot­ing im­prove turnout? Aus­tralia has had some form of com­pul­sory vot­ing since the early 1900s. To­day, if you do not vote, you are fined $20. The sys­tem works well, and a strong ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralians sup­port it. On a world-wide av­er­age, there is 82 per cent par­tic­i­pa­tion at the polls in coun­tries which en­force manda­tory vot­ing.

Even coun­tries which have com­pul­sory vot­ing laws but do not en­force penal­ties have voter turnout in the 60 to 70 per cent range, which is higher than in Canada.

We could ini­ti­ate com­pul­sory vot­ing for all pro­vin­cial or fed­eral elec­tions through changes to our elec­tion laws. Of course, there are po­ten­tially in­sur­mount­able prob­lems of fos­ter­ing the po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus and lead­er­ship nec­es­sary to achieve this, but the facts speak for them­selves on ef­fec­tive­ness.

Com­pul­sory vot­ing can be ex­pected to re­sult in an im­me­di­ate in­crease in par­tic­i­pa­tion at the polls, but we still may not want to en­act it out­right.

In­stead, we could leg­is­late a “tip­ping point” as a type of elec­toral “quo­rum.” For in­stance, voter turnout of 33 per cent or less could re­sult in a dec­la­ra­tion that the elec­tion was in­valid and a sec­ond elec­tion would be held un­der a com­pul­sory vot­ing sys­tem. This sec­ond elec­tion would en­sure a level of voter par­tic­i­pa­tion con­sid­ered min­i­mally ad­e­quate to give a le­git­i­mate demo­cratic re­sult.

Voter turnout of 33 per cent seems a rea­son­able trig­ger for com­pul­sory vot­ing. Al­ber­tans have tac­itly ac­cepted 40 per cent turnout as le­git­i­mate in the last pro­vin­cial elec­tion, so a lower trig­ger is rea­son­able. A min­i­mum of one third voter turnout — half the level of par­tic­i­pa­tion re­quired for sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions, such as amend­ment of the Con­sti­tu­tion — is not ask­ing too much.

A min­i­mum trig­ger for com­pul­sory vot­ing would stave off the need for more di­rect com­pul­sion and en­cour­age cit­i­zens to ex­plore their demo­cratic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. We could use that time to ask our­selves whether or not we should be forced to vote.

—Troy Me­dia Ser­vices

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