Is Compulsory Voting Better?

We have depoliticized and privatized the act of voting. It needs to be reclaimed for public deliberation and debate. Voting is the fundamental act of recognition of members of our political community. In November, the mid-terms are awaiting and actually, the issue is not for whom we vote, but the act of voting itself as constitutive and symbolic of our citizenship.

Do we mean compulsory voting or compulsory turnout? The latter; that is, there should be an opportunity to abstain: positive abstention is a good thing.

Voting is a civic duty. These are not my words, but those of Winston Churchill in 1948, arguing in support of compulsory voting. There are, broadly, two different conceptions of citizenship: a passive conception, in which voting is interpreted largely as a right; a republican conception in which the right to vote is predicated on its also being a duty.

Voting is, of course, a right; but it is both a right and a duty, and if it is not a duty we cannot be sure that it will always remain a right. However, the term duty is ambiguous: I can believe it a moral duty to vote without arguing that there should be a legally enforced requirement to vote. So why should it be compulsory?

Here’s the argument. Rights and duties are typically (with some exceptions) correlative. In the case of voting, correlativity is appropriate: that is, if there is a right there should be a duty, and if there is a duty there should be a right. Further, citizenship creates a right to have rights, and the right to vote is fundamental in that it directly concerns this right to have rights, something specific groups never had in their worst periods in history, see also this post about the Brunner Archive in Berlin.

The rights we enjoy are legally ours: they are enforceable in law; we have a claim on the state (or its delegated service provider) for the upholding of these rights. If the rights are legally grounded, then the corresponding duty which grounds the right to possess these rights should also be legally grounded. In other words, the right to have rights should be grounded in the citizen’s legal duty to vote: in voting, citizens claim the right to have rights. Hence voting is both a right and a legal duty.

Additional observations

A passive citizen accepting the full range of rights offered in virtue of their citizenship, and yet remaining indifferent to the political community which grants those rights, is a free rider who should be reminded that the rights involve duties and that the right to vote, and the right to have other rights, is also a duty to vote.

If rights are strictly correlative to duties, one could argue that voting should not be a legally enforced duty only by accepting the corollary that rights should be enjoyed only when the corresponding duties are undertaken. From a historical perspective, representative democracy and voting rights are important issues as can be witnessed at the Jewish Museum in Berlin that also houses the Constantin Brunner collection.

Compulsory voting requires authorities to register every potential voter. It, therefore, runs directly counter to the cynical policies we see in some countries (e.g. recent US elections) where legislators deliberately try to depress voter turnout for partisan reasons. In Europe, the situation is rather different, with the ongoing problems in, for example, the Ukraine region.

It might be argued that the ignorant will vote ignorantly, but voting will require them to think at least a little about how and why they are voting. Besides, in any system, ignorance is no bar to voting. There is a real and important debate on how to best educate people to make better-informed voting choices: this is a complementary debate to that on compulsory voting. Again, the argument put forward here is not that compulsory voting is, in and of itself, the only way to enthuse voters and engage people in political activity. As with education, there is another debate about how politics might be conducted or reformed to that end.