|Part of the Politics series|
Compulsory voting, also called mandatory voting, is the requirement in some countries that eligible citizens register and vote in elections. Penalties might be imposed on those who fail to do so without a valid reason. According to the CIA World Factbook, 21 countries, including 10 Latin American countries, officially had compulsory voting as of December 2017, with a number of those countries not enforcing it.
During the first two decades of the 21st century, compulsory voting was introduced in Samoa and Bulgaria, while Chile, Cyprus, the Dominican Republic, Fiji and Paraguay have repealed it during that same period.
Athenian democracy held that it was every citizen's duty to participate in decision-making, but attendance at the assembly was voluntary. Sometimes there was some form of social opprobrium to those not participating, particularly if they were engaging in other public activity at the time of the assembly. For example, Aristophanes's comedy Acharnians 17–22, in the 5th century BC, shows public slaves herding citizens from the agora into the assembly meeting place (Pnyx) with a red-stained rope. Those with red on their clothes were fined. This usually happened if fewer than 6,000 people were in attendance, and more were needed for the assembly to continue.
From the 19th century onward, only a relatively small number of democracies have introduced compulsory voting at one time or another, and the number has tended to decline over time. Of the first 35 of the 167 countries listed in descending order on EIU's Democracy Index for 2019, Australia (No. 9), Luxemburg (No. 12), Uruguay (No. 15), Costa Rica (No. 19), and Belgium (No. 33) are the only nations having compulsory voting.
Belgium has the oldest existing compulsory voting system. Compulsory voting was introduced in 1893 for men and in 1948 for women, following universal female suffrage. Belgians aged 18 and over and registered non-Belgian voters are obliged to present themselves in their polling station; while they don't have to cast a vote, those who fail to present themselves (without proper justification, or having appointed a proxy) at their polling station on election Sunday can face prosecution and a moderate fine. If they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years. Non-voters also might face difficulties getting a job in the public sector. In practice fines are no longer issued for non-voters (7.4% of all voters did not vote at the 2018 local elections) but fines will be levied upon those chosen to invigilate at the polling stations.
Compulsory voting for national elections was introduced in Australia in 1924, following a pronounced fall in turnout at the 1922 federal election. Compulsory enrolment had already been introduced in 1911. Voting is also compulsory at state level, having been introduced in Queensland in 1915, Victoria in 1926, New South Wales and Tasmania in 1928, Western Australia in 1936, and South Australia in 1942. However, until 1984 Indigenous Australians were exempt from the compulsory voting provisions.
Compulsory voting is a generalised view that democratic election of governing representatives is the responsibility of citizens, rather than a right afforded citizens constitutionally to nominate representatives. Equating in kind to similar civil responsibilities such as taxation, jury duty, compulsory education or military service, voting in these democracies is regarded as one of the "duties to community" mentioned in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This view asserts that, by introducing an obligation to vote, all citizens governed by a democracy partake in the responsibility for the government appointed by democratic election.
This notion is especially reinforced when both men and women are required to vote and further sustained by diligent enforcement of laws requiring registration of all eligible voters (deemed adult and without exclusion of any significant community within the population).
The idea that compulsory voting results in a higher degree of political legitimacy is based on higher voter turnout. Referring back to the Australian experience, voluntary voting prior to 1924 accounted between 47% and 78% turnout of eligible voters. Following the introduction of compulsory federal voting in 1924, this figure jumped to between 91% and 96%. with only 5% of eligible voters accounted as not enrolled.
Venezuela and the Netherlands are countries that have moved from compulsory voting to voluntary participation. The last compulsory Dutch and Venezuela elections were in 1967 and 1993, respectively. Turnout in the subsequent national poll in the Netherlands decreased by around 20%. Venezuela saw a drop in attendance of 30% in 1993 once compulsion was removed.
Supporters of compulsory voting also argue that voting addresses the paradox of voting, which is that for a rational, self-interested voter, the costs of voting will normally exceed the expected benefits. The paradox disproportionately affects the socially disadvantaged, for whom the costs of voting tend to be greater. Australian academic and supporter of compulsory voting, Lisa Hill, has argued that a prisoner's dilemma situation arises under voluntary systems for marginalised citizens: it seems rational for them to abstain from voting, under the assumption that others in their situation are also doing so, in order to conserve their limited resources. However, since these are people who have a pronounced need for representation, this decision is irrational. Hill argues that the introduction of compulsory voting removes this dilemma.
Supporters of compulsory voting also argue that just as the secret ballot is designed to prevent interference with the votes actually cast, compelling voters to the polls for an election removes interference with accessing a polling place, reducing the impact that external factors such as the weather, transport, or restrictive employers might have. If everybody must vote, restrictions on voting are identified and steps are taken to remove them.
The impact of technology and recent social trends are indicating a growing voter preference towards pre-polling: where the voter fulfils their obligation more at their own convenience prior to polling day rather than trying to arrange release from their responsibilities on the nominated date of polling.
Other perceived advantages to compulsory voting are the stimulation of broader interest politics, as a sort of civil education and political stimulation, which creates a better informed population, although no studies have been undertaken to demonstrate that the populations of Belgium or Australia for instance, where compulsory voting has long existed, are better informed and more politically aware than the populations of New Zealand, France, Canada or the Scandinavian countries, where voting has never been compulsory. It is also argued that since campaign funds are not needed to goad voters to the polls, the role of money in politics decreases. Moreover, campaign funds can be directed towards explaining policies to voters. With non-compulsory voting, the ability of a political machine to get out the vote of its supporters may influence the outcome. High levels of participation decreases the risk of political instability created by crises or charismatic but sectionally focused demagogues.
A 2005 Inter-American Development Bank working paper purported to show that there was a correlation between compulsory voting, when enforced strictly, and improved income distribution, as measured by the Gini coefficient and the bottom income quintiles of the population. However, a more recent Conference Board of Canada study on World income inequality — also relying on the Gini index — shows that income inequality is lowest in the Scandinavian countries, where compulsory voting has never existed, while Australia, and to a lesser extent Belgium, which strictly enforce their compulsory voting legislation, have a higher income inequality level than a number of other Western countries, such as Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, where compulsory voting does not exist.
Monash University political scientist Waleed Aly argues that whether compulsory voting favors the right or the left is beside the point, because the most beneficial aspect of compulsory voting is that it will improve the caliber of individuals who run for office and the quality of the decisions that they make: "In a compulsory election, it does not pay to energize your base to the exclusion of all other voters. Since elections cannot be determined by turnout, they are decided by swing voters and won in the center... That is one reason Australia’s version of the far right lacks anything like the power of its European or American counterparts. Australia has had some bad governments, but it hasn’t had any truly extreme ones and it isn’t nearly as vulnerable to demagogues."
Voting may be seen as a civic right rather than a civic duty. While citizens may exercise their civil rights (free speech, right to an attorney, etc.) they are not compelled to. Furthermore, compulsory voting may infringe other rights. For example, most Christadelphians believe that they should not participate in political events. Forcing them to vote ostensibly denies them their freedom of religious practice. Jehovah's Witnesses view voting as a personal decision to be made based on each one's conscience and understanding of their responsibility to God and to the Government. Many Witnesses do not vote, while taking care to preserve neutrality and not compromise their faith. The law can also allow people to give a valid reason for why they did not vote.
Another argument against compulsory voting, prevalent among legal scholars in the United States, is that it is essentially a compelled speech act, which violates freedom of speech because the freedom to speak necessarily includes the freedom not to speak.
Some do not support the idea of voters being compelled to vote for candidates they have no interest in or knowledge of. Others may be well-informed, but have no preference for any particular candidate, or may have no wish to give support to the incumbent political system. In compulsory voting areas, such people often vote at random simply to fulfill legal requirements: the so-called donkey vote may account for sufficient percentage which has the potential to change the result in close races. (Robson rotation can be used to distribute the donkey vote equally among all candidates, however.) Similarly, citizens may vote with a complete absence of knowledge of any of the candidates or deliberately skew their ballot to slow the polling process and disrupt the election, or vote for frivolous or jokey candidates. Such arguments are frequently aired in Brazil, where opposition to compulsory voting has increased from 43% in 2008 to 61% in 2014 and where two out of ten voters abstained from voting in the October 2014 election.
Former Australian opposition leader Mark Latham urged Australians to lodge blank votes for the 2010 election. He stated the government should not force citizens to vote or threaten them with a fine. At the 2013 federal election, considering the threat of a non-voting fine of up to $20,[full citation needed] there was a turnout of 92%, of whom 6% lodged either informal or blank ballot papers.
Compulsory voting is increasingly resented by citizens in some countries such as Brazil, the largest country where compulsory voting is enforced: at the 2014 presidential election, some 30 million people, about 21% of registered voters, did not vote, despite the fact that Brazil has some of the most severe penalties enforced against non voters.
A study of a Swiss canton where compulsory voting was enforced found that compulsory voting significantly increased electoral support for leftist policy positions in referendums by up to 20 percentage points. Another study found that the effects of universal turnout in the United States would likely be small in national elections, but that universal turnout could matter in close elections, such as the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. In the United States, Democrats would most likely fare better under universal voting (as nonvoters are generally more Democratic) but due to the dearth of close races in the United States, universal voting would change "very few election outcomes." Research on compulsory voting in Australia found that it increased the vote shares and seat shares of the Australian Labor Party by 7 to 10 percentage points and led to greater pension spending at the national level. While weakly enforced compulsory voting in Austria increased overall turnout by roughly 10 percentage points, there is "no evidence that this change in turnout affected government spending patterns (in levels or composition) or electoral outcomes." A 2016 study finds that compulsory voting reduces the gender gap in electoral engagement in several ways. A 2016 study of the Netherlands found that the abolition of compulsory voting increased the vote share of Dutch social democratic parties while reducing the vote share of "minor and extreme parties." Research suggests that higher rates of voter turnout lead to higher top tax rates.
According to a 1997 paper by Malcolm Mackerras and Ian McAllister, in Australia "polls taken over the years have consistently shown a community support of between 60 and 70 per cent" for compulsory voting. In 2005, polls taken by Roy Morgan Research and Ipsos-Mackay found 71 and 74 percent support respectively. Both polls also found there was roughly equal support for compulsory voting among supporters of Australia's major political groups, the Coalition and the Australian Labor Party.
In 1946, a survey conducted by the Netherlands Institute of Public Opinion (NIPO), in the Netherlands, reported that 66 percent of those asked favored repealing compulsory voting. In 1966, the public was polled again, this time by the Politics in the Netherlands survey, and responded 69 percent in favor of the policy. In 1967, the Free University of Amsterdam polled voters on whether they thought the compulsory voting laws at the time were "right" or "wrong"; 70 percent of those asked answered "right", 28 percent answered "wrong", and 2 percent gave no opinion. In January 1969, the Netherlands Institute of Public Opinion polled again, and found 53 percent of those asked were in favor of abolishing compulsory voting, while 29 percent wished to keep it. In 1999, support for compulsory voting in the Netherlands was just at 35 percent.
Current and past use by countries
As of August 2013[update], 22 countries were recorded as having compulsory voting. Of these, only 10 countries (additionally one Swiss canton and one Indian state) enforce it. As of January 2020, of the 36 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only 3 had forms of compulsory voting which is enforced in practice: Australia, Belgium, Luxembourg. Additionally, Greece, Mexico and Turkey have compulsory voting theoretically, but it is not enforced.
Countries and sub-national entities that enforce compulsory voting:
- Argentina – Introduced in 1912 with the Sáenz Peña Law. Compulsory for citizens between 18 and 70 years old. Registered voters who abstain from voting without a justification, which are few and closely checked, are fined AR$50. In case of non payment, the person concerned is barred from dealing with public bodies for one year. Despite this, absenteeism has tended to increase in recent decades at presidential elections, from a low of 15% in 1983 to a high of 25% in 2015 and to 23.6% in 2019.
- Australia – The Australian Electoral Commission states: "It is compulsory by law for all eligible Australian citizens to enrol and vote in federal elections, by-elections and referendums." Introduced for state elections in Queensland in 1915, excluding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Indigenous) Australians. Victoria introduced compulsory voting in 1926, New South Wales and Tasmania in 1928, Western Australia in 1936 (excluding Indigenous Australians), and South Australia in 1942. It was introduced for federal elections in 1924 for British subjects aged 21 and over, but was not compulsory for Indigenous Australians until 1984. The compulsory voting age for federal elections was reduced to 18 in 1974.
- Belgium – Introduced in 1894. Every citizen and registered non-Belgian voter, from the age of 18 has to present themselves in their designated polling station on election day (always a Sunday) at federal, provincial and local elections, however casting a legal vote is not compulsory. Legal sanction for those who fail to present themselves are fines from 40 to 80 €, and up to 200 € for reoffenders. However, the Belgian government has declared that it has other priorities than prosecuting offenders and no one has been prosecuted since 2003. One reason often given is that prosecuting the many thousands of non-voters within the legal time limit would paralyze the already overloaded civil courts. Only the sanctions for absent appointed polling station staff have been enforced since 2003. On the whole, the key Flemish parties on the right are favorable to the abolition of compulsory voting and in October 2019 an agreement was reached to abolish it at provincial and local elections in the Flanders region. As such, the Flemish decree of 16 July 2021 abolished compulsory voting in Flemish local elections, starting from the next elections in 2024. In French-speaking Wallonia, the socialist and the other left-wing parties, which form the majority, are adamantly opposed to abolition.
- Bolivia – The voter is given a card after voting to prove participation. The voter is unable to receive their salary from the bank if they cannot show proof of voting for the three months following the election.
- Brazil – Compulsory for literate citizens between 18 and 70 years old, including those who live abroad. Those who do not vote in an election and do not later present an acceptable justification (such as being away from their voting location at the time) are subject to a fine of R$3.51 (about US$0.65 in August 2020). Proof of voting compliance (by having voted, justified the absence or paid the fine) is required for some transactions such as obtaining a passport, admission to a public university, government employment, and loans from a government-owned bank. There is significant opposition to compulsory voting, and despite the enforcement, about 30 million Brazilians (over 20% of registered voters) did not vote at the 2018 election.
- Ecuador – Introduced in 1936. Compulsory for citizens between 18 and 65 years old; non-compulsory for citizens aged 16–18, illiterate people, and those older than 65.
- Liechtenstein – The Act on the Exercise of Political Rights in National Affairs (1973) states that "Participation in elections and votes is a compulsory civic duty."
- Luxembourg – Compulsory for Luxembourg citizens aged between 18 and 75 who live in Luxembourg; not compulsory for Luxembourg citizens who are over 75 or live abroad. Foreign citizens (in local and European elections only) may register to vote once they have lived in Luxembourg for 5 years. This is a free choice, not a requirement; however, once an eligible foreign citizen has registered to vote, then voting is compulsory for them.
- Nauru – Introduced in 1965 when it was still an Australian possession.
- North Korea – Everyone over age 17 is required to vote. However, only one candidate appears on the ballot. Voting is designed to track who is and isn't in the country. Dissenting votes are possible but lead to repercussions for voters.
- Peru – Introduced in 1933. Compulsory for citizens between 18 and 70 years old.
- Pitcairn Islands – All permanent residents over 18 years of age are required to vote. Those who do not vote, without a valid excuse, are subject to a fine up to NZ$25.
- Samoa – Samoa adopted compulsory voting in 2018. It will be implemented for the first time in the 2021 general election.
- Singapore – Compulsory for citizens above 21 years old as of the date of the last electoral roll revision. For example, the 2020 election has the cut-off date of 1 March 2020. However, amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, voting is not compulsory for quarantined voters or voters affected by stay-in orders. Failure to vote will result in the removal of one's name from the electoral roll.
- Swiss canton of Schaffhausen – Compulsory voting never existed at the national level in Switzerland. However, starting in the late 19th century, it was introduced by several cantons, but by 1974 it had been repealed in all cantons except Schaffhausen.
- Uruguay – Introduced in 1934, but not enforced until 1970. Registered voters who abstain from voting without justification are fined. Fines are doubled if the nonvoter is a public servant or a graduate professional. In cases of non-payment the person concerned is barred from dealing with public bodies (whether acting in a personal interest or as a legal representative), collecting fees or salaries, registering for exams in universities, purchasing registered property, or buying tickets for travel to another country.
Countries that have compulsory voting by law but do not enforce it:
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Costa Rica – Voting is mandatory by law for all those inscribed in the Electoral Rolls. However, those who do not vote face no direct consequences. Absenteeism was consistently around 20 percent until the 1990s, when it jumped to nearly 30 percent.
- Egypt – Egyptian law provides for a fine and even a jail sentence for those who don't cast a vote, but in practice, the law is not applied and turnouts are low, such as 47.5% at the 2014 presidential election, then down to 28.3% at the parliamentary election the following year.
- Greece – Voting is compulsory until the age of 70. Failure to vote is punishable by a prison sentence of one month to one year, and a loss of the offender's post. However, no one has ever been prosecuted. Turnout is low and at the 2015 legislative election, 43.4% of registered voters did not vote.
- Honduras – While the Constitution says voting is compulsory, the Electoral Code does not mention penalties for not voting.
- Mexico – The Constitution mentions that voting is a citizens’ obligation (Art. 36), but the Electoral Code does not establish penalties for not voting.
- Turkey – The ₺22 fine in law is generally not enforced.
Countries that once had compulsory voting but have repealed it:
- Albania - Compulsory voting, which existed throughout the Communist period and produced official turnouts of 100%, was repealed with the new election law of November 1990 and January 1991.
- Austria - At the national level, introduced in 1924. Repealed in 1992. At the provincial level in Styria, Tyrol and Vorarlberg, repealed in 1992.
- Bulgaria - Due to the low turnouts at elections, the Bulgarian parliament introduced compulsory voting in 2016 — the only European country to do so in more than 50 years — but the Constitutional Court annulled the law the following year, declaring that the right to vote was a subjective right and not a public function that entailed an obligation to vote.
- Chile - Until 2012 the Constitution stated that voting was obligatory (Art. 15). A modification of the Constitution eliminated the obligation to vote and established automatic registration for all citizens (Law 20,568).
- Cyprus - Introduced in 1960. Repealed in 2017, after having been inactive for many years.
- Dominican Republic - Compulsory voting, which was not enforced in practice, was repealed with the 2010 Constitution which states: "Nobody can be obligated or coerced, under any pretext, in the exercise of their right of suffrage or to reveal their vote." In 2017, a proposal by an opposition party to establish compulsory voting was defeated.
- Fiji - Repealed in 2014.
- Guatemala - Repealed in 1990.
- Italy – Between 1945 and 1993. (possible arbitrary or social sanctions, called the "innocuous sanction" , where it might for example be difficult to get a daycare place for your child or similar)
- Lebanon – Repealed at least since the electoral law of 1996.
- Netherlands – Introduced in 1917 along with universal suffrage, repealed it in 1967.
- Panama –The current laws of Panama do not mention any sanctions and do not specify the obligation to vote.
- Paraguay – No longer compulsory as of 2018. It was compulsory for citizens between 18 and 75 years old. Turnout at the 2013 general elections was 68.5%, then went down to 61.2% at the 2018 election.
- Philippines – Compulsory and enforced during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos.
- Portugal – 1933 Portuguese constitutional referendum, not enforced.
- Spain – 1907–1923, but not enforced.
- Switzerland – Widespread among the country's 26 cantons in the 19th century but progressively abandoned since then with only Schaffhausen still retaining it.
- US State of Georgia – By Article XII of the 1777 Constitution. This provision was omitted from the revised Georgia constitution of 1789.
- Venezuela – Removed in 1993.
Measures to encourage voting
Although voting in a country may be compulsory, penalties for failing to vote are not always strictly enforced. In Australia and Brazil, providing a legitimate reason for not voting (such as illness) is accepted. In Australia, if a citizen is asked why they did not vote and they reply that it is against their religion, the Electoral Act provides that this answer must be taken as conclusive, and no further action is to be taken. In Argentina, those who were ill on voting day are excused by requesting a doctor to prove their condition; those over 500 km (310 mi) away from their voting place are also excused by asking for a certificate at a police station near where they are. Belgian voters can vote in an embassy if they are abroad or can empower another voter to cast the vote in their name; the voter must give a "permission to vote" and carry a copy of the ID card and their own on the actual elections.
States that sanction nonvoters with fines generally impose small or nominal penalties. However, penalties for failing to vote are not limited to fines and legal sanctions. Belgian voters who repeatedly fail to vote in elections may be subject to disenfranchisement. Singaporean voters who fail to vote in a general election or presidential election will be subjected to disenfranchisement until a valid reason is given or a fine is paid. Goods and services provided by public offices may be denied to those failing to vote in Peru and Greece. In Brazil, people who fail to vote in an election are barred from obtaining a passport and subject to other restrictions until settling their situation before an electoral court or after they have voted in the two most recent elections. If a Bolivian voter fails to participate in an election, the person may be denied withdrawal of the salary from the bank for three months.
- The current (August 2020) listing appears to reflect the situation as of December 2017. The World Factbook - Field Listing: Suffrage.
- The Bulgarian parliament adopted compulsory voting legislation in 2016 but the Bulgarian Constitutional Court annulled it the following year.
- Malkopoulou, Anthoula (5 December 2014). The History of Compulsory Voting in Europe: Democracy's Duty?. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-69333-8. Retrieved 28 March 2018 – via Google Books.
- Ibid. pp.49-52
- While the Constitution says voting is obligatory for all citizens enrolled in the Civic Registry, the Electoral Code only mentions that voting is a duty, and does not reiterate voting as an obligation and does not establish penalties for not voting. https://etd.library.vanderbilt.edu/available/etd-11202015-184530/unrestricted/Maldonado.pdf
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As to whether they will personally vote for someone running in an election, each one of Jehovah’s Witnesses makes a decision based on his Bible-trained conscience and an understanding of his responsibility to God and to the State...In view of the Scriptural principles outlined above, in many lands Jehovah’s Witnesses make a personal decision to stay politically neutral in elections, and their freedom to make that decision is supported by the law of the land. What, though, if the law requires citizens to vote? In such a case, each Witness is responsible to make a conscientious, a Bible-based decision. If someone decides to go to the polling booth, that is his decision. What he does in the polling booth is between him and his Creator...There may be people who are stumbled when they observe that during an election in their country, some Witnesses of Jehovah go to the polling booth and others do not. They may say, ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses are not consistent.’ People should recognize, though, that in matters of individual conscience such as this, each Christian has to make his own decision before Jehovah God.—Romans 14:12. Whatever personal decisions Jehovah’s Witnesses make in the face of different situations, they take care to preserve their Christian neutrality and freeness of speech. In all things, they rely on Jehovah God to strengthen them, give them wisdom, and help them avoid compromising their faith in any way. Thus they show confidence in the words of the psalmist: “You are my crag and my stronghold; and for the sake of your name you will lead me and conduct me.”—Psalm 31:3.Cite magazine requires
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