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April 22, 2010

Should Canadians be forced to vote?

Heather McIntosh

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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 Prince Edward Island’s turnout, the year before, was 84 per cent. Such dismal electoral participation makes it time to consider mandatory voting in Alberta.

Voting a right, but also an obligation?

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.

Minimum turnout required for a mandate to govern?

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.

Incremental implementation

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.

The KW Record, April 16, 2010.

Heather MacIntosh is program director, democratic development and human rights, with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. (Troy Media Corp.)

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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