A memo to the NDP convention in Brandon


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.

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.