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More Representation, Less Radicalism: How Compulsory Voting Was Defended in Europe

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A Century of Compulsory Voting in Australia

Part of the book series: Elections, Voting, Technology ((EVT))


This chapter examines how the practice of compulsory voting was debated in Belgium and France at the turn of the twentieth century. Two principal arguments in favour of compulsory voting stand out. One builds on the concept of ‘true’, ‘exact’ and ‘mirror’ representation. Abstention, it is argued, creates a ‘false’ and ‘corrupt’ image of majority will; by summoning all voters, parliaments will be more representative, election results more credible, and democracies more legitimate. The second argument is that compulsory voting brings out the moderate vote. Radicals tend to either boycott elections or obsess about them. By contrast, abstainers are thought to be less passionate about voting, thus less radical in their views. Compulsory voting will prevent ‘turbulent minorities’ from being overrepresented and more influential than their overall share in the population. As well as justifying compulsory voting historically, these arguments can also provide valuable conceptual resources for thinking about ways of countering the crisis of contemporary democracies.

This chapter draws on my book History of Compulsory Voting in Europe: Democracy’s Duty? (New York: Routledge 2015), particularly chapters 3 and 4, as well as my article ‘The conceptual origins of compulsory voting: A study of the 1893 Belgian parliamentary debate’, History of Political Thought, 37(1), 2016, 152–175.

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  1. 1.

    In this sense, the European experience was the exact opposite of the Australian one, where compulsory registration had been secured before voting was made obligatory (see Brett, this volume).

  2. 2.

    A similar argument, that compulsory voting was going to improve the political knowledge of citizens, was employed in Australian debates (Brett 2019, p. 149). It is also echoed in contemporary scholarship that credits compulsory voting with improving the average levels of political knowledge (Sheppard 2015; Shineman 2018).

  3. 3.

    In Australia too, prior to the introduction of compulsory voting in the state of Victoria, in 1921 it was argued that compulsory voting would guarantee ‘a decision of the whole of the people and not a section of the people’ (see Brett, this volume).

  4. 4.

    Similar views were not uncommon in Australia. In 1924, an Australian Senator objected to the introduction of compulsory voting with the claim that it was not worth obtaining the votes of ‘the negligent and apathetic sectors of the electors’ (cited in Umbers, this volume). They have since been repeated regularly throughout the twentieth century by Australian abolitionists, for example in a 1983 parliamentary report that lamented how elections are determined by ‘apathetic’ rather than ‘considered’ votes (see Strangio, this volume).

  5. 5.

    Compulsory voting, for example, is often condemned for producing a higher number of informal, blank or unsophisticated votes. Likewise, it is criticized for bringing to the polls voters who are less knowledgeable or informed than regular voters, and thereby lowering the quality of elected candidates and political decision-making in general (Brennan 2014; see also Umbers, this volume).

  6. 6.

    Commitment to majoritarian democracy was also the main principled argument behind the introduction of compulsory voting in Australia. As argued in 1924, it was going to make of parliament ‘a reflex of the mind of the people’, and grant greater legitimacy to governments (Brett, this volume).

  7. 7.

    Early supporters of compulsory voting in Australia also supported this view. In 1876, for example, they argued that polls were mostly frequented by ‘the violent partizans of one side or the other. Those who might be expected to give an impartial vote for the best man simply remain away’ (Brett, this volume). And in 1906 they complained that public-minded voters tended to abandon polls to ‘the zealots’. Yet, as Brett explains, the concern here regarded not only Labor but also and especially small religious groups that exercised control over candidates in return for hard-to-come-by electoral support (Brett, this volume).

  8. 8.

    As Brett (this volume) explains, Australians were also concerned about the excessive demand of voters to be transferred to voting centers by motor car, a burden that compulsory voting was going to alleviate.


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Malkopoulou, A. (2021). More Representation, Less Radicalism: How Compulsory Voting Was Defended in Europe. In: Bonotti, M., Strangio, P. (eds) A Century of Compulsory Voting in Australia. Elections, Voting, Technology. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

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