Unrepresentative Representatives: An Argument for Compulsory Voting

Dan Rawle comments on setting democratic priorities; does representativeness and legitimacy outweigh the individual’s right not to participate in democracy?

The notion that a government may enforce compulsory behaviour upon the public is typically scoffed at, evoking Orwellian standards of totalitarianism. However, there are some normative exceptions in democratic countries: the obligation to pay taxes or to educate children, to name two examples. These instances of state-enforced citizen obligations are arguably justifiable exceptions, as they are understood not as a duty to the state but as an action enacted in the interest of other citizens, thought to contribute to the improvement of the domestic human condition. Compulsory education and universal taxation have immediate, measurable and tangible benefits for the public which outweigh their potential perception as a citizen’s political burden, so why can the same logic not be applied to voting?

Only 13 out of 123 democratic sovereign states actively push such an obligation on their citizens, one of them being the pseudo-democratic single-party voting system of North Korea, another being the Micronesian island-nation of Nauru, whose population and total land area is inferior to that of the city of Leiden. This meagre number seems to point to a globalized skepticism towards compulsory voting, the principal reasons being the putatively undemocratic image of forced political participation and infringement on the citizen’s right to free speech (or in this case, the right not to speak). Another argument against compulsory voting is the threat of apathetic or less politically informed members of the public voting thoughtlessly, in protest of being forced to vote, or arbitrarily voting for candidates as they appear on the ballot paper (a so-called ‘donkey-vote’).

There is, however, a normative counter-argument to these potential threats. Advocate of compulsory voting Arend Lijphart suggests that obligating the public to vote may vicariously encourage individuals to become more politically informed, eventually coalescing into an electorate more representative of overall public opinion. Lijphart’s dialectic also expounds the potential dangers of a voluntary system of voting: that “in periods of crisis, sudden jumps in turnout mean that many previously uninterested and uninvolved citizens will come to the polls and will support extremist parties.” Simply put, compulsory voting would bring voting into the sphere of ‘everyday’ practices, compelling the public to make diachronic political decisions and dissuading them from basing their votes on knee-jerk reactions. This holds particular relevance when considered in terms of the UK’s European Referendum vote, which, despite affecting events 3-4 years in the future, was unfortunately timed around the European migrant crisis, the Eurozone crisis, and a slew of terrorist attacks that may have may have incited individuals to vote reactionarily.

In most countries which actively enforce compulsory voting, casting a ballot does not necessarily mean being forced to align oneself with a political party, nor does refusing to vote typically incur severe consequences (see figure 1). As Australian advocate of compulsory voting Lisa Hill crassly posits, an anarchist may enter a polling station and evocatively express their abstention in the form of a flippant epithet (her example being ‘voting is the opiate of the masses’) and incur no penalty. This may have been a particularly useful practice given the apathy towards the establishment seen in the 2016 US presidential elections, where on voting day the two main candidates had the lowest and second-lowest approval ratings of any candidates in US history.

Subtracting those too young to vote, without valid citizenship or subject to the status of felon, the USA has a voting-eligible population (VEP) of 230,585,915, making up 71.14% of the total population. Of the VEP, 27.32% voted for the winning candidate, which corresponds to only 19.43% of the total population. This means that despite the entire US public being subject to the (so far reckless and bipartisanly unpopular) executive orders of the president, his presence in the White House was the conscious choice of less than a fifth of the population (for more statistics see figure 2). Obviously there are other systemic problems with the US voting system which may take priority in considering reform, such as the constitutionally ingrained but putatively flawed Electoral College system or the lack in every US state bar one of a ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot paper. However, the installation of political clout with only meagre popular support questions the democratic legitimacy and proportionate representation of the current president.

As mentioned above, the call for compulsory voting will ultimately be tarnished by implications of political invasiveness upon personal freedoms, especially when the idea of freedom itself is a fundamental and constitutional aspect of daily life as it is in the USA. It will, however, have the positivistic effect of questioning the rationality of the system itself, rather than of individual voters, in critical election results. Furthermore, policymakers would be able to dedicate more resources to the pursuit of positive change and less to the encouragement of the public to invoke their sovereign right to vote. The future of compulsory voting, it seems, will depend on the ethical reevaluation of democratic values in terms of democratic priorities. In the current global surge in populist political parties we will continue to face the trade-off between two democratic ideals: the individual’s right to refuse to participate in democracy and the rise to power of leaders actually representative of the political climate of public opinion.


Figure 1 – Sanctions for / repercussions of not voting Figure 2 – Voting Statistics for the 2016 US presidential election
Belgium ●    A ‘moderate’ fine

●    A temporary loss of the right to vote after consecutive instances of non-voting

●    Difficulty finding work in the public sector

Voting-elibible population (VEP) / Total US Population (November 2016 estimate) 230,585,915 / 324,118,787 (71.14%)
Australia ●    A fine of between $20-50 AUS (€14-35)

●    Imprisonment if fines are unpaid

Republican votes (percentage of VEP) / (percentage of total population) 62,984,825 (27.32%) / (19.43%)
Greece ●    Difficulty in acquiring a government-issued form of identification Democratic votes (percentage of VEP) / (percentage of total population) 65,853,516 (28.56%) / (20.32%)
Bolivia ●    A failure to present a ‘proof-of-voting’ card  in the three months after election can result in individuals not being able to  access their salary from the bank Total voter turnout (percentage of VEP) / (percentage of total population) 128,838,341 (55.87%) / (39.75%)

Dan Rawle is a Master’s student in International Relations at Leiden University.

Photo by ReindeR Rustema