A memo to the NDP convention in Brandon

MEMO

From: The View From Seven

To: Manitoba NDP convention, Brandon

Re: Compulsory Voting

Dear Convention Delegates:

As you gather this coming weekend for your party’s provincial convention in Brandon, it is noteworthy that you will be discussing a proposal from your Elmwood constituency association which would, to quote the Winnipeg Free Press, “[r]ecommend the legislative assembly strike an all-party committee to study compulsory voting.” I have not seen the resolution’s exact text, but presume it would be similar to one crafted by the federal Elmwood-Transcona constituency association.

I hope you will accept a few questions from an independent voter with an admittedly varied party-voting history — though my turnout for elections has been good overall.

  • How much would the penalty be? The Elmwood-Transcona resolution notes that compulsory voting is used in several countries. In Australia, the federal Electoral Commission “will write to all apparent non-voters requesting that they either provide a reason for their failure to vote or pay a $20 [$20 Cdn.] penalty”. In Belgium, fines range from €25 ($33 Cdn.) for a first-time offence to €125 ($167 Cdn.) for repeat offenders.
  • How would a compulsory voting law be enforced? Note that the Australian Electoral Commission only applies penalties to “apparent non-voters”. This suggests that there are two ways to avoid being fined: a.) Vote, or, b.) Stay below the radar. If the same process were used in Canada, a compulsory voting law could have the perverse effect of encouraging the politically disillusioned to not be enumerated at all — which would only reduce their chances of ever going to the polls that much further.
  • Would these fines not fall disproportionately upon those least able to pay them? Note the graph on printed page 4 (PDF page 7) of the Manitoba Institute for Policy Research’s report, Voter Turnout in Manitoba: An Ecological Analysis. It shows that in 2007, higher-income areas tended to have the highest turnout rates (River Heights being the highest at a 69.4% turnout), while lower-income constituencies tended to dominate the lower end of the list (the lowest turnout being Rupertsland’s 33.5%).

    While low turnout might be attributable in part to how close the contest is — River Heights is a historically competitive riding, Rupertsland/Keewatinook less so — Statistics Canada has also noted that voting rates tend to be higher among homeowners and the well-educated. They also observed that, “immigrants, renters, the unemployed and people with children were significantly less likely to vote”.

  • Would compulsory voting really lead to better citizen engagement? A 2008 study by three academics at the Université de Montréal casts doubt on this assumption. While they agreed that “[c]ountries which have compulsory voting exhibit significantly higher levels of voter turnout”, their findings also showed that “avoiding forgoing money cannot be assumed to be a sufficient motivator for getting [a person] to learn more about politics.”

    They also cited studies showing that fine-avoiding voters in Belgium were less knowledgeable about, and less engaged in, politics than those who would likely have shown up to vote even without the threat of penalty; and that Australians were generally no better informed about politics than the British were, despite compulsory voting being the law in the former but not the latter country.

I should note that if compulsory voting were to become law in Manitoba, this would inflame the debate about per-vote subsidies, as this subsidy would become significantly less voluntary than before.

I would also note that the politically disengaged do not “owe” their vote to any politician, party or elected body. It is the sole responsibility of those who seek public office to earn these votes.

Before you debate compulsory voting this weekend in Brandon, I would encourage you to study the material at the links above. I would also encourage you to study the IDEA Voter Turnout Database, and to ask what could be learned from countries with relatively high voluntary voter turnout rates such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and New Zealand.

All the best in your deliberations on this important subject.

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

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