It Won’t Help

This is yet another post on the duty to vote. Here, I address arguments according to we have such a duty because if everyone votes, the quality of election campaigns and, possibly, of governance, will be better than under the current state of affairs, where some people vote, and others do not. This argument, like the information- and legitimacy-based ones that I addressed previously, is instrumental, in that it says universal voting not as an end in itself, but as a means to achieve another desirable result. And indeed this result ― campaigns and governance (is there even a difference between the two anymore? was there ever?) that are oriented toward the public good rather than to pandering to specific segments of the population ― is a most desirable one. But can it justify a duty to cast a ballot?

Susan Delacourt has argued that if voting were mandatory, people tempted to engage in electoral chicanery destined to depress turnout among their opponents would refrain from doing so. Presumably, the same thing would be true even in the absence of a legal mandate, if they knew that everyone believed voting is obligatory. I have also seen suggestions that employers would more readily allow employees time to vote on election day. Yet it is already illegal to prevent people from voting, and employers already have a legal obligation to allow their workers three consecutive hours in which to cast their ballot. I do not understand how the existence of a duty to vote, whether legal or moral, would change the calculus of individuals already prepared to break the law.

Ms. Delacourt also worries that “[s]ome of the dumbing-down of discourse” that plagues our elections “has taken place because political campaigns have become preoccupied with simply getting out the vote (often with shiny baubles) rather than a debate of ideas.” Andrew Coyne has expressed the same concern, writing that “[a]ll of the parties would be … happy if voters outside their base got lost on the way to the polling station. Elections today are not about reaching out to uncommitted voters, so much as motivating yours — typically out of fear of theirs.” (Emphasis in the original)

Yet, tellingly, neither Mr. Coyne nor Ms. Delacourt has offered any evidence that the politics of nations with mandatory voting are more high-minded, or less prone to “the dumbing-down of discourse” or resort to wedge issues than ours. It is from Australia, the country that inspires the defenders of a duty to vote, that the Conservatives have imported Lynton Crosby, the purported guru of wedge issue campaigns ― though, in fairness, the use of wedge politics responds to much broader trends, which I briefly described here, and which affect all democracies, regardless of whether they make voting mandatory. The Australian habit of changing Prime Ministers every year, or perhaps after every poll, also does not strike me as a sign of good governance. There is, in short, little reason to believe that a duty to vote is a panacea, or even a moderately useful remedy, for what ails our politics.

On the contrary, Ilya Somin points out, a duty to vote might make things worse. The people who tend to abstain when voting is voluntary are on average more ignorant than those who vote and, as Jason Brennan notes, empirical studies suggest that even forcing people to vote “doesn’t cause uninformed voters to become any better informed.” An electorate enlarged by the existence of a duty to vote is thus a more ignorant one. The trouble is, as prof. Somin explains, that “[f]or fairly obvious reasons, relatively ignorant voters are more likely to be influenced by simplistic 30 second ads than relatively well-informed ones (who, among other things, tend to have stronger preexisting views).” After all, the problem for the parties does not end with getting voters into a polling booth. Even if the voters get there on their own, they must be made to pick one party rather than another. And if simplistic ads, wedge issues, and fear are the most effective means to do that, these are the means the parties will resort to. With voters who do not care very much about politics and only vote out of a sense of duty, this is even more likely to be the case than with others. A duty to vote, then, might mean more instead of less “dumbing down the discourse” and reliance on wedge issues.

A duty to vote will not improve the state of our electoral politics ― no more than it will make politicians take the interests or opinions of the voters into account, or make our democracies more legitimate. It will neither prevent those who are inclined to break the law to interfere with other people’s votes from doing so, nor discourage political parties from engaging in the sort of campaigning that debases our public affairs and prevents thoughtful discussion of policy issues. In short, in my view, a duty to vote simply cannot achieve any of the purposes that its proponents invoke to justify it. Having dealt with the instrumental arguments in favour of this duty, however, I still must address the deontological one according to which voting is simply a matter of civic duty. I will do that in the next post in this series, probably early next week.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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