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Should Voting be Mandatory?

Written by Think Forward Staff
Friday, 14 February 2014

Voter turnout in Canadian federal elections has consistently hovered below 65 percent in the 21st century, causing some academics and pundits to wonder whether our country should adopt a mandatory voting system.  

On the surface of things, the benefits of mandatory voting seem to outweigh the negative consequences of implementing such a system. In countries where voting is required, registering to vote and going to the polls on election day are typically "legal duties" for citizens of age, and failing to do either can result in a fine or even a day in court.

Advocates of mandatory voting compare the act of voting to that of jury duty, and ask why citizens shouldn’t view an election as a sort of trial, with voters delivering their verdict on the government in question.They also point out that showing up to the polls every now and then to have a say over how we're governed isn't that difficult. What's more, if mandatory voting were adopted in Canada, voters could still register their apathy and protest a government or party by spoiling their ballot, voting for a fringe candidate, or formally declining their ballot.

In Australia, a $20 fine for citizens who fail to register or vote has kept turnout above 90 percent in every federal election since 1925, though some estimate that up to 10 percent of Australians are not registered despite the law. Still, the fact that 94 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in Australia's last federal election compares favourably to the 61 percent of eligible voters who participated in Canada's 2011 federal election.

Proponents of the Australian model also say that mandatory voting protects the rights of marginalized groups because the poor and disenfranchised are less likely to vote than other citizens in countries where voting is optional. As well, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard has stated that the requirement to vote empowers everyday people to influence public affairs and has prevented "cashed-up interest groups" from hi-jacking the country's political system. 

But opponents of mandatory voting argue that no citizen living in a free, liberal democracy should be forced to vote by their government. They claim that many of today's workers – especially parents – lead busy lives and either don't have time to vote or simply don't care about politics and are more concerned with completing other tasks in their day.

And while it's hard to think of any errand that could trump the importance of voting, mandatory voting isn't without its flaws. For example, critics of the Australian model insist that voters are not legitimately engaged in the democratic process because the requirement to vote means that governments and political parties don't have to inspire citizens to head to the polls.

There's also the question of whether adopting a proportional voting system is a better, more democratic way of compelling people to voluntarily vote, since citizens know that their vote is more likely to be counted under such a system. So we want to know what you think. Should the Canadian government make voting mandatory? Or is electoral reform is a better way to encourage citizens to vote? Tell us your thoughts in the Comments section below.



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