No Solution

The reasons people don’t vote suggest a mandatory voting law would be futile

Statistics Canada has released the results of a survey, conducted in conjunction with the November 2015 Labour Force Survey, to inquire into Canadians’ “Reasons for not voting in the federal election, October 19, 2015.” These results are interesting, albeit not quite accurate. To my mind at least, they are further evidence for the proposition that mandatory voting is not the solution to what ails Canadian democracy.

A word, first, about accuracy. Elections Canada put turnout in the last election at 68.49%, though that doesn’t include voters who registered on Election Day. Adding the number of voting day registrations from the Elections Canada “Report on the 42nd general election of October 19, 2015,” I get to a turnout of 70.4% ― though the report itself actually gives a lower figure, 68%. Anyway, these discrepancies don’t matter for my present purposes. What does is that according to Stats Can, 77% of Canadians “reported that they had voted in the 2015 federal election.” So unless the survey’s sample was unrepresentative (which is unlikely though not impossible), anywhere between 7 and 9% of the respondents lied about having voted.

Of course, this suggests that, for these people anyway, voting already is a duty ― albeit one that they might shirk. Which way this cuts in the debate about mandatory voting, I’m not sure. On the one hand, these people don’t need the law to tell them that there is a duty to vote ― they already believe there is one. On the other, the probably need a relatively small nudge to act on their belief, so a mandatory voting law setting a small penalty for not showing up might be effective at getting them involved in the political process.

What about the quarter of the population who actually admit to not voting? Stats Can has a detailed breakdown of their reasons for not voting. Almost a third say they are not interested in politics. Would the threat of a (small) penalty get them to the polls? Quite possibly, though surely not all of them. But what would they do once they get there? The threat of a fine won’t make them develop an interest that they now lack. At best, they will be honest enough to spoil their ballots. At worst, they will cast reluctant, uninformed votes, which will surely not improve our democratic process.

A relatively small number ― only 7% of the non-voters abstained for “political reasons” other than a lack of interest. I suspect that most of these were people who ― like me ― did not find a candidate or party to their liking. If voting were mandatory, most of us would presumably spoil our ballots (or vote “none of the above” if that’s an option). As I’ve observed here, a spoiled ballot doesn’t really add anything to the democratic process either, and even a small number of “none of the above” votes (7% of 23% is just over 1.5% of the electorate) would not be taken as a serious message by the political actors).

Almost half of the self-confessed non-voters invoked what Stats Can terms “everyday life or health reasons” ― being too busy (almost a quarter of the abstainers), being out of town, or being ill. Quite a few of them, especially though surely not only those who were ill, would be excused under a mandatory voting regime, after an inquisition into their circumstances ― which doesn’t strike me as something that the state should be engaging in, but I suppose the defenders of mandatory voting see things differently. Others, those who consider themselves too busy, may well regard a small fine as a cost worth incurring. Even if the fine does tip their utility calculus in favour of voting, it is difficult to imagine that they would be willing to expend the much more substantial amount of time and effort it would take for them to become reasonably informed about the issues. They would show up at the polls and, like those uninterested in politics (whom, I suspect, they resemble more than they care to admit), cast an uninformed ballot.

Finally, 8% of non-voters said that they stayed home for “electoral-process related reasons” ― such as inability to prove their entitlement to vote, or to get to the polling station, excessively long lines, or lack or information about the process. I find it difficult to believe that the threat of a fine would change anything to situation of these people, most of whom would anyway be excused.

Making voting mandatory will not improve our democracy. It will not make people who cannot be bothered to take the political process serious invest their time in it. While it will doubtless force some ― though not all ― of them to the polls, they will not be good voters, whatever one’s definition of “good” in this context. Nor will mandatory voting make those who simply don’t like the options on offer change their mind. And it will certainly not cure the sick or provide identification or transportation to those voters who lack one or the other. Even assuming for the sake of argument that abstention is a problem, mandatory voting is not a useful solution.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

6 thoughts on “No Solution”

  1. I wish I could find the reference, but I know I read somewhere a few years ago that Australia’s experience with mandatory voting has been that it appears to give an incumbent a slight edge overall, but I don’t think there’s been any significant effect.

    If the problem with democracy were simply that not enough people voted, then mandatory voting might fix it. The problems I see have little enough to do with how MPs get elected, but rather what happens once they show up at Parliament. Fixing democracy, to me at least, should be about reforming our institutions.

    It strikes me that electoral reform (which I am to some extent in favor of) is a convenient way for politicians to let themselves off the hook, by basically blaming voters.

    1. “The problems I see have little enough to do with how MPs get elected, but rather what happens once they show up at Parliament.”

      Amen to that.

      Though I’m not sure if the solution is “reforming our institutions” ― or rather, while I think some reforms would be beneficial (probably modestly so), I am skeptical that the democratic process can be significantly improved by whatever means.

      1. Democracy is merely a modified version of the monarchy, control by capital interest..very little humanity involved.

      2. Perhaps another way to put it is that our institutions should be set back more to where the Westminster norm is.

        Look at the often fractious nature of British politics, where backbench groups like the British Conservatives’ 1922 Committee, made up of the more right wing Tory backbenchers, wields considerable influence, or how similar groups like Momentum are force to reckon with in the Labour Party. British MPs are somewhat more notorious for defying their leadership; just ask Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who currently is facing what amounts to a low grade war with his caucus, or David Cameron, who has had to allow even some of members of Cabinet to essentially violate the age-old precept that Ministers should always face in the same direction.

        In comparison, the Canadian variant is far more polite, and far far more deferential to the leadership. It’s only after an election is lost that you will hear former governing MPs decry “We were put in a box and rarely let out for air!”

        Still, I do understand your point. At some point a government has to be able to actually govern, and an Opposition has to oppose. If you look at the chaos in the British Labour Party, one can see what happens when a relatively weak leader who can’t inspire the loyalty, or at least obedience of his caucus, is only dooming the party as a whole to electoral disaster. As much as voters love to say “We want more democracy!”, they rarely seem to reward parties that demonstrate a little too much of it.

        As to the topic at hand, frankly, I am philosophically opposed to forcing people under threat of sanction to show up at the polls. I think not voting is as as much an application of the right to vote as actually showing up and voting, or spoiling one’s ballot.

  2. Candidates that actually stand for something other than default issues like the economy would be helpful. The recent Canadian election was the usual contest on who can toe the middle line most effectively rather than have actual vision and an opinion/ideas that they will stand by. Why is there no real left representation in Canada? Our candidates are largely a joke who play the ‘get the most voters’ game by saying what they think Canadians want to hear.

  3. But what would you possibly replace it with? If you want to see MPs liberated from their parties, look at how the British Parliament functioned throughout much the 18th century. While there were Whigs and Tories, these were not political parties in the real sense of the word, more like groups of MPs are generally similar disposition joining together. Before the office of the Prime Minister and the idea that he should be a member of Parliament was fully formed, the Government often had to do an enormous amount of horse trading to get legislation passed; and some of that horse trading couldn’t be viewed as anything other than corruption.

    The great innovation of Parliament in the 18th century, starting with Sir Robert Walpole’s ministry, but coming to full fruition during the reign of George III and in particular during the Regency, was the organization of political groups under stronger principles of leadership and discipline. It reduced corruption, increased effectiveness, and has to be viewed as a significant aspect of Britain’s rise in the 19th century to global pre-eminence.

    To my mind, you can have more democracy (for some definitions of democracy) or better government, but there is a point at which you can’t have both.

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