I have argued that mandatory turnout provides a practical and effective solution to the electoral collective action problem. In this section I shall demonstrate that this institution also has a number of normative properties that enhance democracy. The empirical variation among democracies in what is required of citizens at election time suggests that democracy is compatible with a range of different institutional arrangements. It is nevertheless of interest to consider whether democracy might be improved or impaired by mandatory participation in electoral processes.
But first it is necessary to clear up come misconceptions about citizen competence and voting. As understood by Robert Dahl and those writing in his tradition, electoral participation in a democracy requires ‘enlightened understanding’ (Dahl 1989, pp. 111–112). Certain theorists and political scientists have recently argued that a substantial portion of the electorate is not sufficiently enlightened to make an informed choice at the polls, and that it is thus better for democracy if such voters stay at home. There are two separate components to this argument: (1) some citizens are not well enough informed to make sound choices, and (2) it is better for democracy if such voters do not exercise their franchise, as is more likely to be the case under voluntary voting laws. The second argument is dependent for its logic on the first, but the converse is not true. One can hold that some voters do not have enlightened understanding but still believe that they should vote.
Let us take each of these arguments in turn. First, the argument that it is harmful to democracy that some voters do not have enlightened understanding presumes a certain conception of what constitutes enlightened understanding or informed choice, usually that of the political theorist or political scientists. Scholars such as Brennan and Somin have gone further than this and argued that many voters misapprehend the causal processes that lead to policy outcomes and thus misperceive how given policies will affect them (Brennan and Hill 2014; Somin 2016; cf. Achen and Bartels 2016). A common counter-argument is that voters should be free to decide the basis on which they wish to cast their vote, and that there is no particular reason why democracy requires voters to vote in their individual economic interest (Dahl 1989, pp. 180–181). Likewise, if they do opt to vote in their interest, they should be free to select the interest-measuring heuristic that suits them, even if it provides a somewhat crude measure. If Achen and Bartels’s ‘blind retrospection’ heuristic of punishing politicians when times are tough—regardless of the cause—provides citizens with a ‘good enough’ means of ensuring accountability, then it is unclear on what basis the political theorist can criticise their decision tool. One might wonder at any theorist who sought to arrogate themselves to the position of deciding what are and what are not ‘relevant’ political considerations in the polling booth; such a move could be seen as more normatively coercive than mandating attendance at the polls.
But even if we accept that some voters may be less enlightened than the philosophers of ideal democracy might like, it is not obvious that ‘faulty’ voters ought to be discouraged from voting, or that we should rejoice in their electoral apathy. It might still be held that a ‘warts-and-all’ democracy is preferable to a system of partial democracy where only a portion of the citizenry takes part. And the ‘solution’ to lack of sufficient enlightenment might be seen to lie in the electoral institutions themselves, which are demonstrably not fit for purpose if their owners are not able to use them adequately. Rather than lock electors out, we could seek to devise institutions that would go some way towards including and educating them. As E. E. Schattschneider claimed: ‘the problem is not how 180 million Artistotles can run a democracy, but how we can organize a political community of 180 million ordinary people so that it remains sensitive to their needs’ (Schnattscheider 1960, p. 135). Likewise, Dahl formulates his famous notion of ‘enlightened understanding’ not in terms of voter knowledge and wisdom, but in terms of aspects of the political system that would foster such knowledge and wisdom: ‘each citizen ought to have adequate and equal opportunities for discovering and validating (within the time permitted by the need for a decision) the choice on the matter to be decided that would best serve the citizen’s interest’ (Dahl 1989, p. 112). Even Achen and Bartels, who have been credited recently with contributing evidence to the argument that many citizens are incompetent voters, argue in favour of rather than against higher turnout: ‘we suspect that American government would function better if the poor were better organized and more economically secure, if turnout in elections were higher and more equal, and if campaigns were financed with public funds rather than with contributions from billionaires, ideologues and special interest groups’ (Achen and Bartels 2016, p. 86; emphasis added).
A further point to consider is which sector of the electorate is least competent to take part in deciding issues of public policy. The common assumption is that it is the less informed citizens—also serendipitously those least likely to vote under voluntary voting regimes—whose contributions to political decision-making might be most detrimental to democracy (Brennan and Hill 2014; Somin 2016). For example, Brennan maintains that ‘the typical and median citizen who abstains (under voluntary voting) is more ignorant, misinformed, and irrational about politics than the typical and median citizen who votes. […] then if we force everyone to vote, the electorate as a whole will then become more ignorant, misinformed and irrational about politics’ (Brennan and Hill 2014, p. 85). Yet recent work in the study of electoral behaviour has demonstrated that the most politically aware and sophisticated voters are precisely those whose views are the most severely affected by the cognitive biases familiar to social psychologists and most likely to fall victim to the distorting effects of motivated reasoning (Achen and Bartels 2016, pp. 279, 294; Taber and Lodge 2013). Thus if anyone is to be excluded from participation on the grounds of improving the outcome of democratic choice, it is arguably the political sophisticates most eager to vote. In as much as this group’s share in the voting electorate would be diluted by mandating electoral participation, those in favour of ‘improving’ political decisions by discouraging less talented decision-makers from taking part should, by their own logic, welcome compulsory voting. Somin, for example, identifies the effect of political engagement on cognitive bias as one of the two principal ills affecting modern voters, together with political ignorance (Somin 2016, pp. 94–96). Curiously, the bias of the engaged disappears in Somin’s discussion of antidotes to the failings of modern electorates, which focuses almost exclusively on ignorance and eschews electoral compulsion on the grounds that it would magnify that problem (Somin 2016, pp. 221–222; cf. Somin 2015). That the same device would tend to minimise the twin problem of cognitive bias is not commented on, despite the author’s earlier analysis of the dangers of biased ideologues.
Thus it does not follow from complaints about incompetent voters that either exclusion or voluntary voting is a logical remedy to the ills of democracy; enlightened inclusion via institutional reform is a far more democratic alternative. There is every reason to believe that mandating electoral participation is just such an institutional reform, due to its impact on campaign strategy and campaign discourse. Indeed, compulsory electoral participation can go a considerable way towards achieving three of Achen and Bartels’s four goals noted above; while it cannot remedy the ills of campaign finance, it can help the poor to organise (and thus potentially improve their economic security through collective electoral action) through raising turnout and making it more equal. Under voluntary voting systems, a large proportion of the effort that parties and candidates put into campaigning is devoted to ensuring that their known supporters turn out to vote. Mobilising the base has become an especial challenge in contexts such as the US, where turnout is unusually low (Gerber et al. 2010; Goldstein and Ridout 2002; Schier 2000). When vote mobilisation is no longer necessary, the efforts of candidates and parties are perforce refocused on suasion: securing the vote of undecided voters and converting the adherents of other parties. There is evidence to suggest that this fact has considerable implications for the style of campaigning in which candidates and parties engage; vote mobilisation leads to extremism and demagoguery, whereas the task of suasion lends itself to moderation. We know from decades of research on voting that there is a relationship between negative campaign advertising and electoral behaviour: negative ads make people less likely to vote and lead to a more polarised electorate (Ansolabehere and Ingeyar 1995; Schier 2000). Candidates therefore use negative campaigning to demobilise all but their own strong supporters, and when both sides do this, the result is the abstention of moderates. When this is no longer a viable strategy, the result is likely to be greater moderation.
In tracing the history of compulsory voting in Europe, Malkopoulou notes that one of the previously unremarked reasons why states adopted this measure was that it was seen as leading to more moderate outcomes (Malkopoulou 2015). Likewise, empirical research on more recent periods confirms that contrary to the fears of some, there is no systematic link between rules mandating electoral participation and support for far-right parties (Birch 2009, pp. 125–126).
There is thus every reason to believe that if candidates must seek support for those not already committed to them and their party, they will moderate their stance. Moreover, non-partisan groups typically engage in get-out-the-vote campaigns at election time, whereas if vote mobilisation is no longer necessary, such groups can focus their efforts on voter education instead. Both these factors suggest that when attendance at the polls is mandatory, the language of politics will be more moderate and thoughtful, leaving less room for demagogues and firebrands. Electoral campaigns under such circumstances are likely to be more educational and to focus more on issues, which will increase the capacity of voters to achieve enlightened understanding and make informed choices when they vote.
Having countered the argument that democracy is better off without the contribution of the less informed portion of the citizenry, we can move on to the normative argument for compulsory electoral participation, which will be made in three stages: in relation to equality, rights and democratic political obligation. I shall demonstrate that electoral compulsion performs as well as, or better than, electoral voluntarism on each of these criteria.
Political equality is achieved if all citizens have equal opportunity to participate in democratic processes and all voices are equally considered via procedures for achieving popular control of public decision-making (cf. Christiano 2008, pp. 75–130; Dahl 1989, pp. 109–115; Hyland 1995, pp. 51–75; Katz 1997, pp. 100–101; Saward 1998, pp. 49–67). Electoral compulsion contributes to both aspects of political equality.
The socio-economic obstacles to effective participation are many (Verba et al. 1995). Voting is the form of political participation least subject to inequality of access, and it is thus the most common form of participation. Nevertheless, there are in virtually all modern democracies marked disparities in rates of electoral activity across socio-economic groups; the young and the poor are typically more reluctant to take part in elections than their older and more affluent counterparts (Blais 2000; Franklin 2004; Norris 2011). The reasons for this are complex, but they involve lifestyle, political engagement and perceptions of political efficacy (Dalton 2004; Franklin 2004; Norris 2011). In other words, there are both behavioural and cognitive elements to patterns of non-participation. The collective action problem inherent in voluntary voting schemes does not completely impede participation; rather, groups in society have differential ability to overcome this problem, depending on their levels of political knowledge, social capital and capacity to mobilise (Soss and Jacobs 2009; Verba et al. 1995).
Given that mandating electoral turnout reliably reduces participation disparities between groups, it goes a considerable way towards addressing inequality of access to political decision-making and achieving ‘equal liberty’ for all (Lacroix 2007). This is achieved in two ways: (1) in altering electoral behaviour, mandatory turnout includes in electoral processes groups that were previously marginalised; (2) this institution also goes some way towards altering the cognitive orientation of voters towards elections. When participation is universal, political elites have strong incentives to cater to the interests of all citizens and to be responsive to the wishes of all sectors of the electorate, so no group has reason to feel that their interests are being ignored by political elites. It may well be for this reason that levels of satisfaction with democracy have been found to be higher in states with compulsory voting (Birch 2009).
In this way, compulsory turnout ensures that all voices will be equally considered and equally valued in political decision-making. The benefits of equal consideration are both intrinsic and consequential. From an intrinsic perspective, full participation leads to full representation, which can be seen as a democratic value in its own right. More inclusive electoral participation also has the epistemic advantage of generating outcomes that better reflect collective preferences. In Hill’s words, ‘Since voluntary voting leads to low turnout, and therefore incomplete information about the wishes of the electorate, one could argue convincingly that compulsory voting enhances the democratic principle of popular sovereignty’ (Hill 2000, p. 32). This supposition is borne out by empirical research on the impact of electoral compulsion on policy outcomes which shows that higher turnout leads to higher social spending and more even income distribution (Bechtel et al. 2016; Hicks and Swank 1992; Mueller and Stratmann 2003), and that states with mandatory electoral participation have lower levels of political inequality and less corruption than states operating under voluntary voting rules (Birch 2009; Chong and Olivera 2005). These findings suggest that participating in elections benefits the citizenry substantively in that it enables it to hold leaders to account and ensure that policies enacted benefit all sectors of the population. They also suggest that the principal transformative impact of mandatory electoral participation is on political elites, rather than on citizens. This is a topic that would benefit from further empirical research, as most existing studies of the effects of compulsory voting focus on how the institution affects electors.
Whatever the substantive benefits of mandating electoral participation, this institution founders in the eyes of many on the grounds that it impinges on fundamental freedoms. Yet considered from the point of view of the function of elections, compulsory turnout does not impinge unduly on civil or political rights and it enables socio-economic rights; it thus results in a net improvement in rights protection. Let us unpack this argument.
We live in a world of coercion. All human institutions, from marriage to penal systems, condition human behaviour in that they require their members to abide by common norms and contribute to the maintenance of those norms. If institutions, by their very nature, make demands on their members, then the relevant question is not whether such demands and constraints are appropriate, but which types of demands and constraints are appropriate in which contexts.
Whether in its Hobbesian or its Weberian variants, the state is coercive. Indeed, the coercive function of the state is that which grounds political obligation, in as much as obedience to political authority requires recognition of the state’s right to compel its citizens to act in certain ways (Horton 2010). One way in which a state coerces its citizens is by requiring them to do things that are in the collective good. There are a wide range of things that are compulsory in most democracies—paying taxes, educating one’s children, stopping at red lights, driving on a given side of the road and serving on a jury when called to do so. Compulsion is justified on grounds specific to the norms entailed in the institutions in question—fairness, paternalism, ensuring public safety, coordination and civic duty. When considering whether any given practice ought to be mandatory, there is thus no single set of criteria that can be applied. A case for the benefits of compulsion must be made in relation to the context in which the behaviour in question is undertaken. It has been argued above that an election is a collective act and that electoral institutions ought therefore to be evaluated according to whether they serve the collective good, not the individual good. If ‘the people’ benefit from mandatory electoral participation, then it is an institution beneficial to democracy, provided it does not unduly impinge on individual rights.
In the electoral context, most democracies make electoral registration automatic or mandatory, but only about a quarter of democracies require their citizens to attend the polls. None require their citizens to cast a vote for an electoral contestant, as this is technically incompatible with the secret ballot (as the marks made on the ballot paper by a citizen cannot be monitored by a state and thus cannot be regulated by law in any meaningful way). Thus no state institutionalises ‘compulsory voting’ per se, as it is not feasible in a democracy to compel any citizen to cast a valid vote. The question at hand is thus whether it is normatively acceptable to compel attendance at the polls, not voting per se.
As noted above, a system of opt-outs would go a long way towards preventing compulsory electoral participation from being unduly or inappropriately coercive. Yet scholars such as Annabelle Lever, Jason Brennan and Ben Saunders still object to electoral compulsion on the grounds that mandating participation is an inappropriate infringement on political rights and that people have a ‘right not to vote’ (Lever 2010; Brennan and Hill 2014, pp. 3–107; Saunders 2016). In order for these arguments to be convincing objections to mandatory electoral participation, two things must be true: the right-not-to-vote argument must be sound, and this right must override the demands of democracy. I claim that neither of these conditions holds.
Lardy (2004; cf. Lijphart 1997; Brennan and Hill 2014, pp. 154–173) points out that the lack of logic in the common claim that the right to vote entails the right not to vote. Certainly no-one would make this claim of other positive rights, such as the right to a fair trial, the right to equal pay for equal work, or the right to the secret ballot. These are inalienable rights, in the sense that even the holder of the rights cannot throw them off. One is not legally allowed to be paid less than the minimum wage or to have an unfair trial. Unlike so-called ‘negative’ rights that prevent others from infringing on specified activities (free speech, freedom of belief, freedom of association), rights that underpin equality must be actively supported by their bearers. Thus mandating electoral participation is, with provisions for opt-outs, compatible with the protection of political rights. Saunders accepts the broad parameters of Lardy’s argument, but nevertheless maintains that the right not to vote can be defended on liberal grounds independent of its connection to the right to vote, as compulsion constitutes interference in personal liberty (Saunders 2016). Yet in as much as our liberties are continually infringed virtually every waking minute that we exist under the law, this understanding of liberty appears to be divorced from the realities of modern lived existence. One might make similar objections to citizens being coerced into stopping at red lights, paying for food in shops or showing our passports when crossing borders. These forms of compulsion are also infringements on liberty.
Yet even were one to grant the right not to attend the polls, one would still need to demonstrate that this right was sufficiently important to override the demands of effective democratic decision-making. If people have a right not to turn out, the value of protecting this right is proportionate to the harm caused by its infringement. In as much as trooping to the polling station every couple of years and placing a ballot (validly completed or not) in a ballot box constitutes a trivial infringement on a person’s rights, complying with this requirement does virtually no harm to any citizen. And any citizen who does feel unduly harmed by the requirement to turn out can, under the scheme envisaged, apply for ‘conscientious electoral objector’ status. There are a large number of ways in which the demands of the modern state infringe on our rights in far more serious ways, such as the requirement to sit on juries, the requirement to pay taxes and the requirement to die for one’s country if asked to do so. These obligations are widely accepted, even though they entail far more significant challenges to citizen liberty. Even if it can be argued that there is a right not to attend the polls, it is a right that soon fades into insignificance in the face of the demands of democracy. As Hill says, ‘requiring that people vote is not justified merely because of its good consequences because this could justify all manner of unreasonable compulsions. Requiring people to vote is justified because voting is central to the existence and perpetuation of a cherished way of life on which so much else depends. Indeed, representative democracy is substantially constituted by voting’ (Brennan and Hill 2014, p. 162).
A further argument, and one that is virtually never considered in debates about electoral compulsion, is that mandatory electoral participation enhances the protection of socio-economic rights. We have already seen that compulsory turnout is linked empirically to greater socio-economic equality and reductions in corruption. When citizens are furnished with an effective and convenient coordination mechanism enabling them to overcome the electoral collective action problem, they are better able to act to protect their interests, including both their collective interest in preventing abuse of power, and their interests as members of politically salient groups in society.
The protection of socio-economic rights can be seen as contributing to overall rights protection directly as well as indirectly, in as much as social protection fosters the conditions necessary for what Dahl (1989) calls ‘enlightened understanding’. As Bart Engelen argues, ‘a purely formal equality of opportunity has to be extended to a more substantial equality of participation and influence’ (Engelen 2007, p. 25).
By enhancing the protection of socio-economic rights and not impinging unduly on political rights, compulsory turnout thus leads to a net improvement in rights protection.
Democratic Political Obligation
The final strand of my argument that mandating electoral participation enhances democracy is that voting is a democratic duty. The notion that voting is a political obligation is deeply embedded in liberal thought (Lacroix 2007; Malkopoulou 2015). In Considerations on Representative Government, John Stuart Mill writes that ‘His vote is not a thing in which [a person] has an option; it has no more to do with his personal wishes than the verdict of a juryman. It is strictly a matter of duty. He is bound to give it according to his best and most conscientious opinion of the public good’ (Mill 1999). Bryce put it even more pithily in the early twentieth century: ‘as individual liberty consists in the exemption from political control, so political liberty consists in participation in legal control’ (Bryce 1921, p. 55).
Yet over the course of the twentieth century, the idea of duties as the natural accompaniment of rights gradually drained out of popular democratic discourse. The equation of ‘democracy’ with ‘freedom’ and ‘freedom’ from non-coercion is now so dominant in popular thinking as to go unchallenged much of the time. But understood as freedom of self-determination (Dahl 1989, pp. 89–91) or freedom from non-domination (Pettit 1997), democratic liberty is consistent with electoral compulsion and a republican grounding of the duty to vote (Brennan and Hill 2014, pp. 167–168; Lardy 2004). Under Philip Pettit’s ‘inclusive republicanism’, a positive value is attached to all sectors of the population manifesting their voice, and Pettit notes that ‘if there is a minority of electors who find it difficult or unattractive to register and vote, let alone to stand for office, then it may be desirable to introduce a system of compulsory registration and voting’ (Pettit 1997, p. 191).
The institutionalisation of democratic obligation is also consistent with Elster’s understanding of democracy as collective self-binding (Elster 1988; cf. Saward 1998). Under a democratic constitution, citizens are bound by decisions democratically taken. Given that they are under obligation to obey the decisions of the collective, they have an interest in taking part in the decision-making process. Most citizens are vaguely aware of this, which is why allegiance to the democratic institution of voting typically surpasses participation in those institutions under voluntary voting regimes. Drawing on Elster’s notion of precommitment (Elster1979, 2000),Footnote 5 Elliott argues that electoral compulsion can be seen as a means by which the members of a polity can precommit to act in desirable ways that they believe they should do but have trouble doing on their own (Elliott 2017; cf. Elster 2000, p. 94).
Democracy is a public good that must be supplied by the citizens of the democratic polity. Though no polity will draw on the input of all citizens equally, the principles of equality and inclusiveness that ground representative democracy demand of citizens at least minimal participation in the core constitutive choices made in a representative system.