Portuguese municipal elections have passed, and worrying (yet but not surprising) turnout numbers have emerged. This time abstention stood at, roughly, 47.4% of the electorate.
Among several problems, this brings serious trouble regarding legitimacy of government, and a huge problem of unaccountability to both voters and government. These two circumstances together can undermine any democracy, and should be counteracted actively, in order to avoid democratic instability.
I believe that part of the solution relies on compulsory voting. And I consider that there are arguments of economic, moral and political nature supporting this.
The majority of the past literature concerning voter’s turnout seem to agree that the fraction of the population that does not vote is biased. The conclusion presented many times is that choosing not to vote is not independent of the socioeconomic condition, or of the level of education, in the sense that abstention is higher in groups of people that studied less throughout their lives. One of the problems that arise out of this, is that as turnout decreases (which is actually the trend in last decades, in Western democracies), increases the inequality in representativeness, thus increasing the probability of the government representing the interests of a minority. This is particularly serious if we think that political parties, as votes maximizers, will worry about measures that please their electorate. If there are minorities that vote less, the measures that benefit them will be less appealing to political parties, which will make these minorities less interested in voting, creating a cyclical effect of marginalization.
Making everyone a potential voter will oblige political parties to take into account all sectors of the society. The vote is one of the few situation in which all agents have the same power, it is imperative to use it to counterbalance inequalities!
But turning vote mandatory can bring another positive effect. It shifts people attention from “Will I vote?” to “In whom will I vote?”. And this makes parties worry about actually informing people, instead of trying to get people to vote. Gains in efficiency do not end here, if everyone is supposed to vote, then Government has incentives to remodel the electoral system, in a way to make possible for everyone to vote. This will launch the debate regarding electronic vote and other new alternatives. Long queues to vote, discourages people to do it. In Portugal, for example, is a massive bureaucracy to vote, if you are outside of the country.
Moreover, creating the notion that voting is not only a right, but a duty as well, can create a increasing democratic momentum in society (that can, of course, take more than one generation to happen), up to the point that voting becomes intrinsic. It will be inherent to our democratic system. These dynamics will make people increasingly interested and informed about who are they voting for, and thus, becoming more vigilant and demand better politicians. This could give rise to new political parties, new independent political or civil rights movements and foremost, a greater involvement from citizens!
We are not trying to compel anyone in voting for a particular party. The option to vote in no one would still be available (may it be blank vote, spoilt vote, voting for “none of the above” or other option of this nature). An example of a successful implementation of compulsory voting is Australia, which introduced this measure in 1924, and has henceforth had its turnout in every election at around 95%, although the punishment for not voting is low ($20).
Having a more social-engaged and politicized society won’t be achieved by compulsory voting alone. Complementary measures have to be taken, such as continue to fight for a more informed population, with higher educational standards. However, the benefits arising from this measure are, I believe, far superior to the disadvantages that may ensue.
The right to Democracy entails the duty to express ourselves about her, yes to compulsory voting!
Sérgio Rocheteau #620