Many countries around the world enforce compulsory voting, which means that if you’re eligible to vote, you have to register and show up to cast your vote. Otherwise, you’d attract penalties like fines, losing your right to vote and losing eligibility for jobs in the public sector. Currently, 22 countries have compulsory voting, of which 10 strictly enforce it. India has compulsory voting too, but only in the state of Gujarat.
Usually, compulsory voting is introduced to increase political awareness and participation in the democratic process, but it effectively converts voting from a ‘right’ to a ‘duty’. While some voters appreciate this, many others think that the right to vote should also include the right to abstain from voting. In an effort to see if the rest of India should follow Gujarat’s lead, let’s see compulsory voting through the voter’s perspective, do they love it, or do they not?
Love It – I’m much more politically aware
One of the reasons countries have adopted compulsory voting is so that the electorate is more informed about the policies of the candidates and parties as well as the functioning of the government. If candidates want to get as many votes as they can, they have to make sure that their manifestoes reach as many people as possible. This way, even if the people don’t actively look for information, it is sent to their doorstep anyway.
Love It Not – I have to vote even if I don’t like any of the candidates
For example, in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump were undesirable candidates; this is probably why voter turnout took a dip that year. But unlike the U.S., in many countries where voting is compulsory, the voter has to cast his/her vote for an undesired candidate because they have no other option. Of course, a system like this can lead to arbitrary voting. For example, in Australia, the concept of Donkey Voting is pretty popular. When given a list of 5 parties to elect from, the voter lists his preferences of the party in the same order as listed on the ballot. This means the voter doesn’t express his true preference but simply turns-up at the voting booth and goes through the motions to avoid legal consequences. Donkey voting can be easily spotted, as the preferences stand out as illogical. For example, if the ballot sheet lists liberals and conservatives in line, it’s hardly logical that a voter who supports liberals will choose conservatives as his second preference.
This also encourages a cash-for-votes trend, something that’s bad enough in India even without compulsory voting.
Love It – I know that my participation means a government that serves the people
Compulsory voting means the elected representatives are completely legit. Candidates winning seats in Parliament represent the entire population and not just the people who voluntarily showed up to vote like in other counties. In India, 66% of the population voted for the current government. This means that regardless of whether we follow the first past the post system or a proportional representation system (more on that here), our leaders only represent a part of our population. Since poorer and less educated people tend not to vote, the political system is often skewed in favor of the rich and well educated. This wouldn’t happen with compulsory voting and would be a big plus for India. Maybe we can even withdraw political reservation then.
Also, if everybody votes, the elected government will have to consider the total electorate in policy formulation and management. Since parties don’t have to waste time, energy and money on getting people to vote, they can instead spend those resources on better policies instead, focusing on all the people.
Love It – Sometimes I can get away with not voting
In some countries, the concept of compulsory voting is not legally enforced. While the law outrightly states that it is mandatory for every eligible citizen to vote, there is no procedure to charge a person for absence at voting booths. For example, Egypt is one of the 22 countries in the world to have compulsory voting, mandated since 1956. But in the 2018 presidential elections, only 41% of the people turned up cast their vote. In some other countries, like Greece, voters have the option of NOTA (None of the above) when voting so that they’re not forced to vote for an undeserving or undesired candidate. So even when voting is made compulsory, this avoids arbitrary voting. People also resort to intentionally casting invalid votes as a form of protest.
Love It Not – But if I get caught, there’s no telling what will happen to me
Many countries have very arbitrary forms of punishment for not voting in a country that enforces compulsory voting. While most have monetary fines or are blacklisted from obtaining government services, the extent of fines and blacklisting is decided differently in different constituencies and different situations. Mexico and Italy tend to impose ‘social sanctions’ in the absence of formal ones. In a country like India, with many levels of bureaucracy and a reputation for corruption, especially social and economic corruption, unless the penalties are formally outlined, this could be very dangerous.
Compulsory voting is considered practically difficult and contradictory to people’s right to abstain from voting, which is a fundamental problem. In India, despite widespread political knowledge, some factions of society consider elections as erroneous and immoral. Forcing such people to vote can be deemed as steeping on their right to choose. On the other hand, mandatory voting will also give more voice to minorities in the country taking their true expression into account. Getting people from niche corners of the country in the election system includes high costs, but will be a more democratic way of electing a government.