Compulsory voting, E-voting leave root causes of low voter turnout unresolved

“Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda,” goes an old Spanish saying. “Although the monkey dresses in silk, it is still a monkey.”

It’s a reminder that spin and cosmetic changes designed to mask an underlying structural problem ultimately cost a lot of money, but fail to correct the original problem.

We’re seeing some of that in response to the fact that only 57 percent of enumerated voters, or roughly 45 percent of the province’s voting-age population, turned out to cast ballots in the Oct. 4 election — one of the lowest rates in Manitoba’s history.

Talk since then of Manitoba needing compulsory voting or e-voting to boost voter turnout suggests that some people are ready to call in the tailor to start taking the monkey’s measurements.

Compulsory voting certainly does get voters out to the polls. In August 2010, 81 percent of voting-age Australians turned out to elect 150 members of the country’s lower house of Parliament, under the threat of a $20 Aus. ($21 Cdn.) fine for unexcused no-shows.

This came shortly after Belgium’s compulsory June 2010 elections, in which 89 percent of registered voters turned out to vote on the threat of fines starting at 50 Euro ($70 Cdn.)

E-voting is still in the experimental stages worldwide.

But compulsory voting and e-voting both have a flaw: these changes assume that the distaste that many Manitobans feel for politics is unwarranted.

Their distate for politics is, in fact, perfectly legitimate. For a generation that grew up in a world where diversity, choice and individuality were next to godliness, the political world has little to offer.

Experience shows that cajoling people to vote does not build a better or more respectful relationship between the political world and the rest of the public.

A 2005 survey of 1,393 Australians for the World Values Survey found that only 34 percent of Australians had “a great deal” (4%) or “quite a lot of confidence” (30%) in Parliament.

When the same question was last asked in Belgium in 1999, only 36 percent of the 1,830 Belgians polled expressed confidence in Parliament (3% “a great deal” and 33% “quite a lot”).

This was comparable to the 38 percent of 2,036 Canadians, asked the same question in 2006, who expressed confidence in our own Parliament (4% “a great deal” and 34% “quite a lot”).

There is further evidence that compulsory voting in particular is no magic cure to voter apathy:

  • A 2010 discussion paper from the Study Center Gerzensee in Switzerland found that “compulsory voting increases the share of uninformed voters, thereby making special-interest groups more influential” which “thus receive more generous rents under compulsory voting…. Compulsory voting may thus well lead to policies that make even less privileged citizens worse off.”

  • A 2003 Elections Canada report examining foreign compulsory voting systems found that any compulsory voting scheme must be backed up by the will and the resources to fine and/or prosecute non-voters: “[C]ompulsory voting does not really have any effect unless penalties are stipulated for electors who decide to abstain. A merely symbolic obligation is not sufficient.” This could become controversial if these fines fall disproportionately upon the poor, as they inevitably would, or if people avoid the possibility of being fined by simply refusing to be enumerated.

  • A 2008 study of enforced voting and political awareness by three political scientists at the Université de Montréal found that “avoiding forgoing money cannot be assumed to be a sufficient motivator for getting [voters] to learn more about politics,” thus casting doubt on the idea that compulsory voting will lead to a better-engaged public. The study involved two groups of students: “half the students were required to complete two surveys; the other half were also required to vote.”

As for e-voting from the comfort of your home or a public computer, the risks to the integrity of the electoral process are downright alarming, as one report on Estonia’s experiences with e-voting noted:

“E-voting brings along many concerns of fraud and privacy associated with remote balloting, including the risk that voters who do not cast their votes in the privacy of a voting booth, may be subject to coercion, or that voters have the opportunity to easily sell their vote. During the last elections in Estonia some vote-buying incidents became public and the problem has been blown up in mass media. This is partly the reason why the e-voting concept suggests that the re-voting should be allowed. The fact that voter has always a possibility to re-vote, even in the controlled area on elections day, can minimise the number of manipulative attempts.”

Those interested in improving voter turnout rates here in Canada would be well advised to take a closer look at Sweden, where more than 82 percent of the voting age population showed up at the polls in the 2010 parliamentary election — the third consecutive election in which turnout was higher than it was at the previous election.

What’s remarkable about Sweden is that it’s all voluntary. No one in Sweden is compelled to vote.

Even the young turn out to vote. In 1998, 74 percent of Swedes aged 18 to 22 years turned out to vote. This was considered alarmingly low by Swedish standards:

“A fall in 1998 started a debate about declining voter participation in Sweden. The problem was considered especially serious since the average turnout was even lower among first-time voters: 74 percent for those aged 18–22. A lack of confidence in politicians or politics as a means of changing the world was advanced as possible explanations. Established political parties also reported, and still report, a declining interest among young people in becoming politically active. At the same time new groups and organizations with a strong political message are gaining support, mainly from young people.”

Some notable differences between Sweden and Canada:

  • Swedish MPs are seated according to the multi-member constituencies they represent, not by party. This reinforces the concept that MPs are expected to work (and even socialize) together across party lines.

  • Sweden’s parliament is elected by proportional representation to a fixed, four-year term. Since there is no threat of a snap election, and since special interest groups cannot cause large-scale political career terminations by mobilizing small numbers of voters, party discipline need not be as militaristic and kowtowing to politically crucial subgroups need not be as obligatory as it is elsewhere. In other words, there’s more latitude to tell the truth.

  • Swedish culture has a solid “moderation in all things” ethic and a strong egalitarian mindset. Therefore, attack ads and appeals to narrow groups of voters to the exclusion of others are considered even more distateful than they would be here.

New Zealand has also been successful in getting voters out to the polls voluntarily. Nine of their past 10 parliamentary elections saw 75 percent or more of the voting age population turn out to vote. (Why voluntary turnout is so high in N.Z. remains a bit of a mystery, but it’s worth looking into. Perhaps it’s related to New Zealand being a small and isolated society with a remarkably open and honest system of government.)

But don’t hold your breath waiting for anyone in the political game to look overseas for inspiration and then act on it. It’s much easier to just dress the monkey up in silk.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

5 Responses to Compulsory voting, E-voting leave root causes of low voter turnout unresolved

  1. Scott Price says:

    Great analogy. I agree with you. How about a study on the corelation between the low level of political discourse by politicans and voter apathy. Would love to see those numbers.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    LOL — as soon as someone develops an index for measuring political discourse, I’ll get right on it. 🙂

  3. Brian says:

    Good work.

    – BFK

  4. theviewfromseven says:


  5. bwalzer says:

    I somewhat belatedly note that New Zealand also uses a type of proportional representation (Mixed Member Proportional).

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