Acta Politica

, Volume 42, Issue 1, pp 23–39 | Cite as

Why Compulsory Voting Can Enhance Democracy

  • Bart Engelen
Original Article


Even though more than half of all citizens in the world are currently able to exercise the right to elect their leaders, many of them choose not to vote. This article considers the role of compulsory voting in order to enhance the democratic values of political participation and equality. Raising turnout considerably, it is an effective instrument to motivate citizens to express their voice in public life, thereby ensuring that their concerns will be heeded. Opponents of compulsory voting, however, argue that it is undesirable because it violates the value of personal liberty and drags uninterested citizens to the polls. This article tries to rebut these arguments and challenge their underlying concept of democracy. As compulsory voting sends the message that every vote matters, it is able to restore rather than harm democracy and its values.


compulsory turnout compulsory voting political participation turnout political equality 



The author acknowledges financial support for this research by the Fund for Scientific Research – Flanders (Belgium). Further, the author thanks Yvonne Denier, Sylvie Loriaux, Thomas Nys, Joris Van Damme, Professor Antoon Vandevelde and an anonymous referee of this journal for their comments on an earlier version. Of course, any remaining flaws or errors are my own.


  1. BBC News (2002) Saddam ‘Wins 100% of Vote’, October 16, 2002, available online at:
  2. Blais, A. and Dobrzynska, A. (1998) ‘Turnout in Electoral Democracies’, European Journal of Political Research 33 (2): 239–261.Google Scholar
  3. Burnham, W.D. (1987) ‘The Turnout Problem’, in J.A. Reichly (ed.) Elections American Style, Washington DC: Brookings Institution, pp. 97–133.Google Scholar
  4. Christiano, T.D. (2001) ‘Democracy: Normative Theory’, in N.J. Smelser and P.B. Baltes (eds.) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 3413–3418.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Dahl, R.A. (1998) On Democracy, New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Dahl, R.A. (2001) ‘Democracy’, in N.J. Smelser and P.B. Baltes (eds.) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 3405–3408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. EP (European Parliament) (2004) Turnout Trends at European Elections, available online at:
  8. Franklin, M.N., Lyons, P. and Marsh, M. (2004) ‘The Generational Basis of Turnout Decline in Established Democracies’, Acta Politica 39 (2): 115–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Freedomhouse (2006) ‘Freedom in the World 2006’, available online at:
  10. Hicks, B.M. (2002) ‘‘The Voters’ Tax Credit’, Policy Options of the Institute for Research on Public Policy 23 (4): 63–68.Google Scholar
  11. Hill, L. (2002a) ‘Democratic Assistance: A Compulsory Voting Template. Refereed paper presented to the jubilee conference of the Australasian Political Studies Association’, available online at:
  12. Hill, L. (2002b) ‘On the Reasonableness of Compelling Citizens to ‘Vote’: The Australian Case’, Political Studies 50: 80–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hirczy, W. (1994) ‘The Impact of Mandatory Voting Laws on Turnout: A Quasi-Experimental Approach’, Electoral Studies 13 (1): 64–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hooghe, M. and Pelleriaux, K. (1998) ‘Compulsory Voting in Belgium: An Application of the Lijphart Thesis’, Electoral Studies 17 (4): 419–424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. IDEA (2002) ‘Voter Turnout Since 1945: A Global Report’, available online at:
  16. IDEA (2004) ‘Voter Turnout in Western Europe Since 1945’, available online at:
  17. IPU (2004) ‘Parline Database’, available online at:
  18. Jackman, R.W. (1987) ‘Political Institutions and Voter Turnout in the Industrial Democracies’, American Political Science Review 81 (2): 405–423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Jackman, S. (2001) ‘Voting: Compulsory’, in N.J. Smelser and P.B. Baltes (eds.) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 16314–16318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Keaney, E. and Rogers, B. (2006) A Citizen's Duty: Voter Inequality and the Case for Compulsory Turnout, Institute for Public Policy Research, available online at: Scholar
  21. Lijphart, A. (1997) ‘Unequal Participation: Democracy's Unresolved Dilemma’, American Political Science Review 19 (1): 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Lijphart, A. (1998) ‘The Problem of Low and Unequal Voter Turnout – and What We Can Do About It’, Political Science Series 54: 1–13.Google Scholar
  23. MacKerras, M. and McAllister, I. (1999) ‘Compulsory Voting, Party Stability and Electoral Advantage in Australia’, Electoral Studies 18 (2): 217–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Mill, J.S. (2003) ‘On Liberty’, in M. Warnock (ed.) Utilitarianism and on Liberty: Including Essay on Bentham and Selections from the Writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin, Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  25. Mueller, D.C. and Stratmann, T. (2003) ‘The Economic Effects of Democratic Participation’, Journal of Public Economics 87 (9): 2129–2155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Orr, G. (2002) ‘Ballot Order: Donkey Voting in Australia’, Election Law Journal 1 (4): 573–578.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Pettit, P. (1997) Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  28. Powell Jr, G.B. (1986) ‘American Voter Turnout in Comparative Perspective’, American Political Science Review 80 (1): 17–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Sear, C. and Strickland, P. (2003) Compulsory Voting: Standard Note, July 3, 2003, available online at:
  30. Skinner, Q. (1990) ‘The Republican Ideal of Political Liberty’, in G. Bock, Q. Skinner and M. Viroli (eds.) Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 293–309.Google Scholar
  31. Teixeira, R. (1992) The Disappearing American Voter, Washington DC: Brookings.Google Scholar
  32. USCB (2006) ‘Countries Ranked by Population: 2006’, available online at:
  33. Vanmaercke, L. (1993) ‘De stemplicht in vraag gesteld’, Nieuw Tijdschrift voor Politiek 9 (2): 63–78.Google Scholar
  34. Verba, S. and Nie, N.H. (1972) Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  35. Verba, S., Nie, N.H. and Kim, J.-O. (1978) Participation and Political Equality: A Seven-Nation Comparison, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Watson, T. and Tami, M. (2001) ‘Make Voting Compulsory’, available online at:
  37. Wattenberg, M. (1998) ‘Should Election Day Be A Holiday?’ The Atlantic Monthly 282 (4): 42–46.Google Scholar
  38. Wattenberg, M. (2002) Where Have All the Voters Gone?, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bart Engelen
    • 1
  1. 1.Research Assistant of the Fund for Scientific Research – Flanders (Belgium), Centre for Economics and Ethics – Institute of Philosophy (K.U.Leuven), Centre for Economics and Ethics – K.U.LeuvenLeuvenBelgium

Personalised recommendations