How to Achieve Mandatory Voting

Updated: May 28

Because Google Adsense deemed this website to have too little content for ads, I'll be posting my top 25 undergraduate papers. This was one of the last political science papers I wrote. Too much time during a political science undergraduate degree is spent arguing about whether or not voting should be mandatory. The usual objections will come about how it violates inherent democratic freedoms and such. But honestly, if you use just a little bit of imagination, you can easily come up with a voting scheme that technically makes voting compulsory and also leaves everyone satisfied.


Dalhousie University

ECON 3315

May 28th, 2021



One of the political debates that often arose in my experiences of political science undergraduate classes is compulsory voting. Should we all be required to vote? Or is it a fundamental right not to participate in the institution of voting? In reality, this conversation typically misses the more important point that we should create a voting system that makes voting options for everyone, even those who chose to abstain on purpose. Whether the consequence is a fine or tax credit, institutional changes such as electoral reform, options on the ballot and removing the inconvenience of voting could all go a long way to ensure that one hundred percent of the electorate is content with the institution.

Compulsory voting implies punishment for those who don't participate. For something to be mandatory, there needs to be a consequence. The negative consequence of not partaking in the institution of voting would be clear. Not participation in the institution of voting should never be a felony or even a misdemeanour. It is merely inconveniencing our society not to understand the democratic preference of our population. Therefore, it is somewhat akin to having to pay a parking ticket. Although in the sense of maximizing utility, it makes moral sense for parking tickets and voting fines to be paid in proportion to one's income and not a universal flat rate. However, such a punishment over not participating in an institution such as voting would be controversial on the front of human rights. Even if most Canadians seem to be in support (according to a Research Co. poll)(1), it would still be politically tricky. Therefore, it would be easier politically to incentivize the behaviour with a tax credit in proportion to one's income instead of a fine in ratio to one's revenue. Sure, it is arguable that voting is not mandatory if the only consequence is not receiving a tax credit. But the turnout percentage would most likely enter the vast majority territory with that tax credit. Although, it would take many institutional changes to the voting system to ensure that the vast majority of the country wants to participate. For instance, electoral reform.

One potential counterargument for mandatory voting is that many people in Canada currently feel like their voting preference does not make a difference. The main reason why is because we have the first past the post-voting system. That system means that the candidate who gets the plurality of the vote wins the election. In ridings where one party typically dominates by getting above sixty percent of the vote, voters who prefer other parties in that riding most likely feel as though there is no need to take the time to express their preference. Such as in the case of the Battle River-Crowfoot riding in Canada.(2) Indeed, this is a situation in which even having a ranked ballot of candidates, although it may help somewhat, would not solve the problem of those voters feeling as though it is worth it to spend the effort to declare their preference, even with the tax credit. However, a system of proportional representation would solve the issue. In a system of proportional representation, voters vote for a party and not a candidate. Then afterwards, assuming the party they voted for meets the minimum vote percentage requirement(3), those who voted for that party will be assigned a representative that lives as close to them as is possible.

While switching to a proportional representation system might ensure those who prefer a party who receives a tiny percentage of the vote in their area suddenly have no reason to feel as though expressing their preference does not matter, that change will not satisfy everyone. There are many ways to go about voting that doesn't necessarily imply choosing one of the political parties on the ballot. In Canada, we have an option to write-in candidates on our ballots. That is an example of an additional option that voters have to express themselves. To justify making voting mandatory, we will need to ensure that every possible form of expression that one could desire exists as an option on the ballot. The other options that would be necessary would be the options of "I don't know," "I don't care," "None of the above parties," & "Abstain." The option of "I don't know" should satisfy those who are not interested in politics or feel as though they can make up their mind on a preference. The option of "I don't care" is similar, but it should satisfy those who feel the need to express overtly that they are apolitical. The option of "None of the above" should satisfy those who are not content with the choices of parties that exist on the ballot. In fact, there have been previous efforts to make that option a reality(4). And lastly, the option of "abstain" should satisfy those who are not in support of the institution itself. Those options should help to convince people that there is a voting option that exists for everyone. However, there remains one significant barrier against the process of voting itself.

As it currently stands for federal elections in Canada, you must go somewhere to vote in person. Luckily, the voting period is more than just one day, and your employer is legally obligated to let you leave work for up to three hours to vote(5). However, there is no shame in admitting that it is a general inconvenience to leave your house or work to stand in line somewhere and go through the process of voting. Those who have extreme social anxiety may shy away and feel that their one singular vote does not make a tangible difference anyway. Two measures can be implemented to deal with those issues. The first is the implementation of a moving holiday being election day. If election day were to become a national holiday, it would alleviate any pressure employees feel to not leave work. The other measure, and a measure that would make the most significant difference in people feeling a barrier to voting, we need to be able to vote online. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we received our CERB payments online by accessing our profile for the Canada Revenue Agency. We accept that there is enough security in that system to provide thousands of dollars for necessary financial support. We all trust financial institutions to keep our money secure in an online system. Why can't we cast our vote from the comfort of our own homes? That change would go a long way to make the process of voting less of a general inconvenience. In 2017, the government of Canada released a report calling for trials of online voting. However, as of 2021, the matter has not made significant progress6.

The debate around whether or not voting should be mandatory should instead be around whether or not those who chose not to vote should be fined or should not be eligible for a tax credit. It would benefit society for the entire country to express their democratic preference to represent the nation's political pulse. There should not exist any barriers to the fundamental right to vote. Those barriers could be the feeling that your vote does not matter because we have the first past the post system, and you live in an area that votes heavily for a party that you do not support. If we adopt a proportional representation system in which we all vote for a party, that barrier gets eliminated. Luckily, the barrier of the freedom to vote for anybody you want currently does not exist because we can write in candidates on our ballots. However, the barrier to express your vote in the form of "I don't know," "I don't care," "None of the parties above," or "Abstain" still does exist. If those options were to be on the ballot, those barriers to voting would cease to exist. And, of course, there is the barrier of inconvenience. Individuals have to leave their homes or work to participate in elections. If election day were a federal holiday and we could vote online from our homes, those barriers would also cease to exist. We should all be committed to eliminating the barriers to voting for a healthier democracy. Even if that barrier includes the opportunity cost of taking the time to vote, we ought to reward people who decide to vote with a tax deduction. Or we could fine those who chose not to participate to even out that financial field. Either way, voting is a civic duty and all barriers to voting ought to be eliminated.




Bibliography


Canada Elections Act (S.C. 2000, c. 9). https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/e-2.01/page-17.html.


Canseco, Mario. “Three in Five Canadians Think Voting Should Be Mandatory in Federal Elections.” Vancouver Is Awesome. Glacier Media Digital, October 9, 2019. https://www.vancouverisawesome.com/politics/mandatory-voting-federal-elections-canada-1946103.


Grenier, Eric. “Which Way Does Your Riding Lean? Mapping Canada's Most Partisan Places.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, July 27, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/grenier-riding-partisan-lean-1.4762557.


Humphreys, Adrian. “Unhappy Voter Loses Bid to Officially Vote 'None of the above' in Federal Election.” NationalPost.com. National Post, November 12, 2018. https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/unhappy-voter-loses-bid-to-officially-vote-none-of-the-above-in-federal-election.


“Is a Radical Reform of the Voting System Key to Healing Britain's Political Divisions?” The Week UK. The Week, May 30, 2019. https://www.theweek.co.uk/22271/proportional-representation-the-pros-and-cons.


“Online Voting: A Path Forward for Federal Elections.” Canada.ca. Government of Canada, January 2017. https://www.canada.ca/en/democratic-institutions/services/reports/online-voting-path-forward-federal-elections.html#toc29.




1 - Canseco, Mario. “Three in Five Canadians Think Voting Should Be Mandatory in Federal Elections.” Vancouver Is Awesome. Glacier Media Digital, October 9, 2019.

2 - Grenier, Eric. “Which Way Does Your Riding Lean? Mapping Canada's Most Partisan Places.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, July 27, 2018.

3 - “Is a Radical Reform of the Voting System Key to Healing Britain's Political Divisions?” The Week UK. The Week, May 30, 2019.

4 - Humphreys, Adrian. “Unhappy Voter Loses Bid to Officially Vote 'None of the above' in Federal Election.” NationalPost.com. National Post, November 12, 2018.

5 - Canada Elections Act (S.C. 2000, c. 9).

6 - “Online Voting: A Path Forward for Federal Elections.” Canada.ca. Government of Canada, January 2017.