[Update: the National Post link to this article no longer seems to work. I’ve posted the full text below.]
About a week ago, my friend and colleague David Moscrop wrote an intriguing op-ed in the National Post arguing that the biggest problem facing Canadian democracy is not low turnout, but unreflective voters. Among other things, it is a critique of the idea of mandatory voting. His full argument is here.
While certainly supportive of the idea that we need Canadians more engaged in politics, I nonetheless find the basic goal of increased turnout by various mechanisms, including mandatory or otherwise incentivized voting, to be convincing. At the same time, I found problematic David’s idea that increased turnout without additional reflection can actually be counter-democratic. Eventually, I wrote my own op-ed:
Political reform is in the air. Conservative MP Michael Chong’s innovative Reform Act is working its way through Parliament. New civil society organizations, such as Samara, are generating ideas for bettering our political system. Even the government’s reviled Fair Elections Act has spurred Canadians to think more seriously about the kind of democracy they want.
Compulsory voting is also enjoying another moment in the sun, thanks in large part to a full-throated endorsement by Post columnist Andrew Coyne (‘Compulsory voting worth a try,’ May 15). Supporters of mandatory voting worry about declining turnout rates, and there are valid reasons for concern. Just 61% of registered voters showed up to the ballot box in the 2011 federal election – down from a peak of 79% in the early 1960s. A mere 24%, less than one in four, actually cast a ballot for the winning Conservatives.
Even worse, the divide between those who vote and those who do not is increasingly based on politically salient factors like age and class. Voters in Canada tend to be older and better educated than their non-voting counterparts. Non-voters tend to have somewhat lower incomes and to be less religious; they are also more likely to be foreign born, and of non-European origin. The same research also shows that people born after the Baby Boomers vote at lower rates than their predecessors did at the same age.
The result is socially uneven representation. Citizens at Canada’s social and economic margins are, to some extent, estranged from the country’s political system. Elected governments, in turn, see little profit in reaching out to them, producing a vicious circle of selective alienation.
Even so, critics fear that compulsory voting constitutes a cure worse than the disease, as compelled or induced votes would likely be made with less thought. Writing in the National Post, David Moscrop argues that society would be better off trying to produce “better citizens,” who are trained in the ways of critical thought and vote only after investing the time and energy necessary to make an informed choice, even if it means fewer votes cast (‘Some people shouldn’t vote,’ May 24).
Others suggest that there is a moral component to voting; that voters are performing their duty as citizens, or conversely, that the freedom not to vote is itself valuable. Either way, those who fail to vote ought to live with the consequences, should the elected government serve their interests poorly. Still others worry that any fines levelled against non-voters will tend to punish the very voters they are intended to help, since marginalized Canadians will likely continue to stay away from the polls in larger numbers than others.
While these arguments are all valid, they are also somewhat problematic. Concerns about uninformed voting constitute a false dichotomy: The goal ought to be to maximize both voter knowledge and turnout, rather than pitting one against the other. Any qualification for voting, however soft or well-intentioned, puts us on a slippery slope towards literacy tests and outright voter suppression. Meanwhile, to argue that voting is a moral duty, is to suggest that those at the centre of Canadian social life are more virtuous than those on the edges. That’s an awkward case to make, and it still leaves us with the serious problem of selective political alienation described above. The argument can also be turned back on itself: If voting is a duty, why not make it mandatory, like paying taxes or registering births and marriages? What’s needed is a solution that reinforces voting as a valued piece of civic engagement. Voting is, among other things, a habit, one that can be cultivated like any other. Incentivized voting is one way to do so. This would appeal to narrow self-interest in the short term, while also laying the foundations for a more engaged citizenry in the long run. It needn’t be a punitive system, either: Voters could easily be compensated through mechanisms, such as modest tax credits. Other strategies associated with positive habit formation ought to work, as well. This would leave intact the freedom not to vote for those who cherish that right.
Incentivized voting provides a workable solution to a real problem. If it is ultimately rejected, Canadians will have to find another approach, because the underlying issue of declining and uneven turnout is not going away.
Stewart Prest is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter @StewartPrest.