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In Defense of Mandatory Voting

Photo from the Globe and Mail


In the wake of an election with 43 per cent voter turnout — the lowest in Ontario's history — pundits and partisans alike are trying to parse out what has gone wrong with democratic engagement in Canada's most populous province. Premier Doug Ford increased his majority by seven seats by winning only 41 per cent of the voters that bothered to show up to the polls. The discouraging result: The Progressive Conservatives successfully formed a supermajority government by attracting about one-in-six eligible voters.

Of course, many individuals and organizations have been warning us about Canada's democratic decline for years. I wrote about this decline last year following the 2021 federal election. Critics of the major political parties noted throughout the campaign period how uninspiring the challengers to Ford's government were, and how they were unlikely to motivate people to vote. While we didn't necessarily predict such a low turnout (43 is a shockingly low number), it's not all that surprising either.

Photo posted by Andrew Coyne.

For those who have spent years advocating for sweeping changes to our electoral system, the new calls for mandatory voting (or "compulsory voting") seem like a ham-fisted, gut-instinct, band-aid response to a problem that has deeper, systemic causes. Forcing people to vote will not make the traditional parties more inspiring, nor will it fix our outdated electoral system that produces such skewed results. If anything, forcing people to vote without changing these fundamental issues is coercive: if people aren't voting, it's because they don't want to, or don't see it as worthwhile — Instead of forcing them to vote, let's make it worthwhile!

While I understand these critiques of mandatory voting, particularly because it is now being championed by people who have opposed other forms of electoral reform (like former Liberal Minister Catherine McKenna or FPTP superfan Max Fawcett), I still think it is an idea that merits mention, if only as one tool in the electoral reformer's toolbox. It is not as coercive or authoritarian as the name "mandatory voting" implies, would improve democratic engagement, and make campaigns that target low turnout impossible.

Firstly, there is a real difference between conscientious objection and apathy. While there are many people who don't vote because of deeply-held political beliefs (bourgeois democracy is irredeemable, politicians are parasites, etc.), there are as many who don't because they didn't have time that day, or they simply forgot. For the former, there is already the option of declining their ballot, which would presumably still exist if mandatory voting were implemented in Ontario. This is their way to say "none of the above," or show that they reject the system outright.

For the latter, sometimes all they need is a small incentive (such as avoiding the $20 fine that exists in Australia), to get them to research the platforms, put a bit of thought into their choice, and go to the polls. This incentive to vote, however small, makes forgetting to vote much more difficult. Given how many people are reminded to vote by their friends and family, giving everyone this small incentive would increase engagement across the electorate, and change the character of election day significantly.

Australia is an instructive example of what this could look like: it is in part because everyone is required to vote that election days are held on weekends (complete with celebratory sausages!) When not voting comes with a fine, people will not tolerate anything short of easy and accessible democratic engagement. When everyone votes, completing one's civic duty becomes a public celebration of democracy ⁠— it would preferably also be a holiday.

As of right now, given how few people decline their ballots, there is no way to distinguish those who abstain from voting because they reject all of the options (or the system itself) from those who stay home for more trivial reasons. Mandatory voting — with an option to decline one's ballot — will give abstentionists a more concentrated and powerful voice, because they will no longer be mixed in with the other non-voters. In fact, there wouldn't be any other non-voters: anyone who rejects the system would have to make a conscious decision to do so.

If the $20 dollar fine still seems too coercive, there are alternative incentives, such as tax credits, or reducing service fees at government agencies. In Australia, voters can apply for an exemption, and religious and other objections are considered valid. No one is actually forced to vote, but everyone is forced to think about why they would or would not. If you're a conscientious objector, one of the aforementioned people who do not vote because of their political beliefs, you should at least be willing to explain your beliefs.

Mandatory voting will also significantly change campaign strategy for political parties, and make it so that keeping turnout low is no longer a path to victory. The low voter turnout in the recent Ontario election was not only due to failure on the part of the Liberals and the NDP, but also the PCs' success at making this an election about a highway (in other words, an election about nothing at all). Ford was sheltered from the media throughout the campaign period, and PC candidates were seemingly instructed not to attend local debates. These tactics successfully kept the election as low-profile as possible. Decreasing voter turnout is one of the objectives of any Republican campaign, which explains in part why they try to make voting inaccessible.

If turnout is guaranteed by something external to the campaigns of political parties, their strategies will change to exclude driving down turnout. Voter turnout would no longer be one of the key battlegrounds on which the election is contested: political parties, including conservative ones that might benefit from low turnout, are forced to try to convince all voters, rather than just their motivated bases.

Mandatory voting is not a panacea. It cannot, as Max Fawcett implies, "rescue Canadian democracy" on its own. Much broader reforms are necessary, particularly moving away from the archaic first-past-the-post system. Australia is indicative of how mandatory voting can not solve the problems first-past-the-post creates. But it has significant advantages, such as changing the nature of campaigns to disincentivize driving down turnout, and creating broad democratic engagement among the large group of people who care about their communities, but need a little push to become engaged in elections.

In fact, mandatory voting could help in the fight for electoral reform by increasing people's level of civic knowledge and engagement. One of the biggest obstacles advocates for electoral reform run into is a lack of engagement and understanding of our electoral system. In this regard, mandatory voting would create a more engaged political culture and more knowledgeable citizens. I believe that once people are educated on the flaws in our electoral system, they'll be more motivated to try and change it.

The devil is also, as always, in the details. For mandatory voting to not be coercive, there needs to be an option to decline your ballot (which already exists in Ontario), or a "none of the above" option, and preferably both. There also need to be exemptions, including for conscientious objectors. Flat fines disproportionately affect poor people, so they would need to be replaced by fines that scale with income. Or, replace fines with a tax credit, and use positive incentives to encourage voting. Voting must be as accessible as possible: Election day should be a public holiday, or on a weekend, or over multiple days, or all three!

When thinking of ways to make our electoral system more fair, it's important to think big. All of the aforementioned reforms could have a huge impact, and none should be discounted. Mandatory voting should not be off of the table, even for those who would hope for more fundamental changes to our electoral system.

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