Blog | May 16, 2011

Talk examines mandatory voting

By Kevin Ma, St. Albert GazetteAbout 44 per cent of Edmonton-St. Albert residents didn’t vote in the last election, according to Elections Canada. Should they pay a fine?That was the basic question examined by a group of about 20 people Wednesday at the University of Alberta as part of a forum on compulsory voting organized by the Sheldon Chumir Foundation, a Calgary-based think-tank.Canada celebrated the fact that about 61 per cent of its voters bothered to cast a ballot in this federal election, says Charlotte Kingston, an intern at the foundation, but that’s still way below the 75 per cent that used to vote.Democracy depends on majority rule, she says, and low voter turnout undermines that rule. “Is there a need for something to change in Canada? It’s quite obvious that is.”

For and against

Low turnout erodes the legitimacy of government and threatens the rule of law, Kingston says, and is a symptom of civic disengagement. “Canadians are not internalizing the idea that voting is part of their democratic responsibility.”It also creates a social bias in government, she continues, as research suggests that non-voters come from specific social groups: the poor, the less educated and the young. This leads to a vicious cycle where the government ignores these people and their problems because they don’t vote, which discourages more people from voting.Compulsory votes might be the answer, she says. About 30 nations, including France and Mexico, now require their citizens to vote in elections, with penalties ranging from fines to the loss of the right to vote if they do not. Australia has had mandatory votes since 1924 — a policy supported by 74 per cent of the population — and now sees 90 per cent turnouts at elections. The Netherlands recently got rid of compulsory voting, she notes, and saw a 20 per cent drop in turnout as a result.But democracy depends on freedom of choice, says Dan Shapiro, a researcher with the Chumir Foundation, including the freedom not to vote. “Forcing you to vote in the name of promoting democracy goes against the very spirit of democracy.”Residents might have legitimate reasons not to vote, he notes — say, as a protest against the government’s legitimacy. Compulsory votes would get more people to the polls, but could also lead to a worse outcome if those voters are not better informed.And there may be better ways to get people voting, says St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse, who was not at the talk. “I think if you add online voting … you’d be surprised by what percentage of the population would vote.”
Reluctant supporters
Mandatory votes could prompt people to think more about citizenship, says Larry Booi, president of Public Interest Alberta. “There are all these pressures to make you a consumer. There’s almost no pressure to make you a citizen.”This most recent election made Steve Patten, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, a reluctant supporter of mandatory voting.Once voter turnout dips below 65 per cent, he notes, parties can win majority governments with just 25 per cent of the popular vote. That’s encouraged parties to focus almost exclusively on their core supporters and has apparently prompted some to engage in “vote suppression” — dirty tricks to discourage voting such as directing people to false polling stations.But those tactics only work when there aren’t many voters, he notes. Mandatory voting would force parties to engage with voters beyond their base and make vote suppression tactics unworkable. Instead of rallying their supporters, candidates would actually have to attend debates and win people to their side. “When you change the mechanics, maybe you change the culture.”By Kevin Ma, St. Albert Gazette This article was published in the St. Albert Gazette on May 14, 2011. Read the full article on the Gazette website.