Compulsory Voting: Better for Politics or Better for Populists?
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Compulsory Voting: Better for Politics or Better for Populists?

How mandatory voting could change elections in Toronto.

Photo by asianz from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by asianz from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Should Canada require citizens to vote or face a fine as Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and eight other countries do?

Debate over the merits of compulsory voting seem to spring up every time there’s an election. Proponents see voting as an essential duty of citizenship, and no different in that respect from paying taxes. The Australian experience indicates that even a modest fine of $20 for non-compliance is enough to boost voter turnout to more than 90 per cent. By contrast, Canada’s voluntary voting system has produced an average turnout of 62 per cent over the past five Canadian federal elections.

The compulsory voting debate cuts across ideological lines. Supporters include Justin Trudeau’s adviser Robert Asselin on the left and National Post columnist Andrew Coyne on the right. And, for once, good-government advocate Don Lenihan and the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute are on the same page—both opposed mandatory voting.

Advocates of compulsory voting aspire to more than just higher voter turnout. The ultimate goal is to get those who would not otherwise vote to take an interest in politics and public policy issues. Mandatory voting would require politicians and civil servants to address the concerns of those so turned off by the governing process that they avoid voting voluntarily. And citizens not content with the choices offered would still be free to spoil their ballot.

Detractors argue that fining non-voters would be an unnecessary infringement on their right to decide whether or not to participate in the democratic process. The expense of chasing down non-voters to levy fines would add to overall election costs. And skeptics doubt the promised positive impact on public engagement. A 2007 Université de Montréal study showed that students did not gain political knowledge as a result of mandatory voting.

The more recent and more practical example of the 2014 Toronto municipal election demonstrates how compulsory voting could potentially change election outcomes. There is a strong likelihood, based on pre-election polling numbers, that Doug Ford would be mayor-elect today if voting had been mandatory.

In pre-election polls, Ford’s support was strongest among those least likely to vote. Mainstreet Technologies, for example, asked survey respondents to slot themselves into one of four groups based on voting intention: “certain,” “likely,” “might,” or “unlikely.” In Mainstreet’s final pre-election poll, Tory was ahead of Ford only among those certain to vote. In each of the other three categories, Ford beat Tory by 20 or more points. Pollster Ipsos-Reid also showed Ford ahead of Tory in all groups except “certain voters.”

Source: Mainstreet Technologies, Mainstreet Toronto Mayoral Poll: October 23.

The prospect of non-compliance fines would likely have compelled most of the nearly 40 per cent of Torontonians who shunned the ballot box on October 27 to vote. To win in a compulsory voting system, Ford would have had to beat Tory by 10 percentage points among those who did not vote voluntarily. Polls showing Ford well ahead among those least likely to vote indicate that this outcome would have been a distinct possibility.

Of course, it’s impossible to say exactly how the election would have turned out if compulsory voting laws had been in place. To take just one caveat, John Tory would probably have run a different campaign if he’d been forced to reach out to all eligible voters rather than those most likely to vote.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking why Doug Ford might have done better with mandatory voting. Ford’s popularity among those least inclined to vote may reflect the very problems that compulsory voting advocates wish to address. Many non-voters may indeed have little interest in public issues or politics. Some non-voters may never have heard of John Tory until Doug Ford cast Tory as a villain in those “What’s the story, Mr. Tory?” ads. If forced to vote, some people might have chosen Mayor Rob Ford’s brother Doug as the most recognizable name on the ballot.

The question is whether compulsory voting would increase public engagement over time among those disinclined to vote under the current system. However, at least during the initial stage, the ironic outcome of a switch to compulsory voting could be that Doug Ford and other populists would reign supreme.