The reason why mandatory voting is the only solution to voter disengagement

“As a result, the question that really begs to be asked is not ‘how do we get youth to vote?’ but ‘how do we create a system that is relevant to and meaningfully engages all Canadians, including youth?’

It’s easy to say that, since this is everyone’s problem, no individual or group can be counted on to take leadership on reversing the decline in voter turnout. We disagree. Throughout Canada, passionate leaders in political parties, the public service, educational institutions, the media and student organizations can help raise the profile of this issue and work to build effective cross-sector, intergenerational approaches to solving the problem.”

If one reads the piece by David Mitchell and Ryan Conway, one would be of the opinion that voter disengagement can be solved through a “cross-sector, intergenerational” approach. However, a simple analysis would show that a societal approach will get us nowhere.

For example, in the article, the authors argued that politicians needed to be at the forefront of any solution. Or as they put it, “Stop ignoring the elephant in the room and get politicians involved”. Well, most of the problem has been created by politicians. Over the last thirty years, politicians have taken a very “business-like” approach to winning political office. They have increasingly turned to techniques which will increase and decrease the turn-out of various populations.  Or put differently, politicians treat elections more like a market than like a civic duty.

Think about it. If I am a Politician I want to reduce the amount of uncertainty in a campaign. Therefore, I will concentrate on those people who have voted in the past and I will concentrate on people who have voted for my point of view. Consequently, Liberals have concentrated on Liberal Votes, New Democrats have concentrated on their votes and the Conservatives have done the same.

Only in rare situations will Parties look to other supporters. Liberals have done so in the past. McGuinty, in Ontario, appealed to the NDP to get Mike Harris out of office; while Paul Martin did the same in 2004 to hold onto power. Most recently, in her first election as Premier, Allison Redford appealed to all Progressives for their vote, so that she could hold off the surging Wildrose Alliance.

However, this is not the only way that Politicians try to change the behaviour of the “electoral market”. Political competitors also try to reduce the vote of other contenders.  In a work, released by the Walter A. Haas School of Business, we can see that there are reasons for releasing negative ads. In their paper, theses academics contended that “negative ads hurt the incumbent candidates and increase name recognition of the challenger.” Therefore, it should not be a surprise that the Conservatives ran negative ads in 2006 to topple the Martin Liberals.

Nor would it be a surprise to see that “the advertising choice model reveals that campaigns’ decisions to air negative ads are responsive to demand elasticities, and sensitive to competitors’ airing of negative and positive ads. Interestingly, we also find the likelihood of airing negative ads increases as the election date draws closer.”

Furthermore, no politician will turn their campaign dollars towards increasing the public’s general propensity to vote. For, that would bring uncertainty and new voters who might vote against their Party. Therefore, Politicians aim their ads towards persuadable voters and do everything that is legal to reduce the wider voting public from coming out. Voter suppression techniques are common in the US and if the last election is any example, they are coming across the border.

Consequently, it is not in politicians best interests to increase public participation in our civic exercise. For that matter, only a few private or public sector players would want to increase the vote.  Most players – hospitals and corporations, lawyers and accountants – hire lobbyists who understand the system. Most players are very happy with the system.

Additionally, as a society, we are not willing to spend money on increasing the vote. For example, it would be hard to see a situation where teachers are given extra time, money or resources to provide strong civic lessons; while very few other players have the respect to create such a movement.

If you don`t believe me, ask yourself why such a civic coalition have not already started. It is true in North America that we have seen movements like Rock the Vote, but none of them have been effective. In fact, the most effective youth voting campaign in the last thirty years was the Barack Obama Campaign in 2008. That Campaign saw increased rates of Youth Voting as part of their plan. The Obama Campaign saw it as being in their own self-interest to grow the vote.

Consequently, baring the self-interest of a politician or two, why don’t we talk about a real method for solving low voter rates? In Australia, a democracy like our own, they argue that voting is not a right; it is a duty of citizenship. Therefore, like any other duty of citizen, a penalty is attached for not doing it. In Australia, not voting is treated the same way as a parking or a speeding violation. A citizen is penalized with a small fine and everyone moves on.

Australia has a very high voter turnout. It is over 80 percent. Belgium, Italy and Luxembourg also have compulsory voting. There voting rates are at or over 90%. This is an example of a policy prescription that works. Therefore, we should just adopt it.

 Like other countries, we can add exceptions for things such as travel, sickness or homelessness. We could even add a system or exception for conscientious objectors, if it was needed. However, the main theme would be simple: a Canadian citizen would have the obligation to voting and not just the right to vote.

As a Liberal, I do not like adding obligations to citizens. For, it restricts our ability to freely determine our course in a democratic and free society. However, it is not unheard of. For example, I am obliged to drive a certain way and to act in appropriately when in public. If, for example, I as a free citizen were to scream “fire” in a theatre, where no fire was present; I would likely go to jail. These are my obligations in a free society, the question is should voting be added to this list. In my opinion is simple: “it should be”.

For, if we use my usual lens – “Respect of the Other” – it is easy to see that this change would be Liberal in connotation and feel. In this situation, we are asking all citizens to give their opinion on their next representative in Ottawa. This clearly shows respect for each citizen. Furthermore, one still has a choice, one could suffer a fine, if one chooses. Consequently, I think it passes the Liberal test.

However, we could do more. In my opinion, to show further respect to the Other, we could also introduce a None of the Above box. Coupled with existing procedures – spoiling ones ballot or refusing/declining one’s ballot – one will find that we are doing more than Respecting the Other; we are empowering the “Other” to make a decision. Furthermore, if we change Election Day into a Holiday, we could Respect the time of every participant and use solutions that are already working in other countries. Therefore, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Conway should be seeking legislative change. They should be pushing towards a system of mandatory voting. That would improve our existing voting rates, by using a proven solution. While, it would not be simple to institute, it would provide a pragmatic solution to an endemic problem. The question is will anyone listen.

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