President Obama thinks that forcing us to vote might be a good idea. That he could favor punishing people for not voting—which means taking their money by force and imprisoning them if they resist—is unsurprising. The essence of government is violence—aggressive, not defensive, force. Government is not usually described in such unrefined terms, but consider its most basic power: taxation. If you can’t refuse the tax collector with impunity, you are a victim of robbery. It doesn’t matter that government claims to render "services" if you don’t want them.
Most of us learn young that violence is wrong except in defense of self or other innocent life. To those who say society without government would be problematic, I reply that most of us also learn that even a good end cannot justify a bad means. Besides, most of the ills that government "protects" us from—such as economic distress and terrorism—result from its own policies.
Aside from the violence inherent in the system, mandatory voting has conceptual problems. Enthusiasts of modern government often say that voting is a right—the most sacred right in some people’s eyes. [More sacred than the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?] It’s also said to be a duty. Can it be both?
Having a right means you may freely decide to take—or not take—an action without forcible interference by anyone else, including people in the government. Your right to the car you bought signifies that you are free to use it peacefully, or not use it at all. It makes no sense to say that your right to your car obligates you to use it or face punishment. Anyone who talks that way simply does not understand what a right is. A right, then, differs from an enforceable duty.
The story is the same with voting. If one has a right to vote, the idea of making the exercise of that right mandatory is absurd. No matter how many good consequences Obama dubiously foresees from compulsory voting, they can’t change the fact that forcing people to exercise a right makes no sense. It’s a sad commentary that he is not ridiculed widely for his suggestion.
If voting is a right, it can’t be a duty, and if it’s a duty, it can’t a right. Perhaps it’s neither.
I’ve assumed people have a right to vote, but let’s not be too hasty. It’s an odd right, indeed, because it entails participation in the process by which government officials are chosen. But as we’ve already established, government’s essence is aggressive violence. Can you have a right to participate in what would be condemned as a criminal operation if it were run “privately”? Can you have a right to help determine who will govern others against their will?
If for the sake of argument we concede the right to participate in the political system, shouldn’t we have to acknowledge the corollary right not to participate? I don’t mean just the right not to vote, but the right to opt out of government altogether—voting, taxation, war, regulation. Yet government does not let us theoretically free people opt out of individual programs (try opting out of the Mideast wars or Social Security), much less across the board.
In other words, no matter how often we’re told that the government exists by the consent of the governed, it really does not. Were you asked to consent? Please don’t say that remaining in the country counts as consent, for that would assume what is here disputed: that before any specific consent, the government has legitimate jurisdiction over the territory known as the United States of America. In fact, consent is merely presumed, and nothing you can do will ever be taken by the government as legitimate withholding of consent. Yet if that is true, then nothing you can do could logically constitute consent either. To repeat: if nonconsent is impossible, so is consent.
Individual freedom in moral communities requires not an impotent “right” to cast one vote among multitudes, but the right to ignore the state and live peacefully.
Popular participation is often cited as one of the fundamental principles of democracy. The right to vote being a freedom that has, and continues to be, sought after by people all over the world. Despite the value of many political systems’ movement toward universal suffrage, the few countries that have confused the right to vote, with a requirement to, have arguably deteriorated the significance of this achievement. Australia is part of a considerable minority that implement obligatory voting laws, and of an even smaller subset that enforce them. Although the proponents of mandatory voting will be considered, the incompatibility of compulsory voting with implied freedoms, with broad theories of democracy and the overall inefficacy of producing a more engaged public, serve as perspectives that substantiate the notion that voting should no longer be compulsory in Australia.
The Australian Constitution raises a number of questions about the constitutional validity of mandatory voting. Given this evaluation of an issue so pertinent to political rights, the implications of these challenges coming from a source as authoritative as this cannot be understated. The existence of a legal responsibility to vote can be perceived as incongruous with the implied freedom of political communication that was proved in Australian Capital TV v Commonwealth 1992 and recognised ever since. This inconsistency extends to the right to vote being proved as an implicit right in s7 and s24 of the Constitution, which, as reported by Dr. Anthony Gray, is an entitlement to vote that includes the freedom not to. Whilst advocates for the current system of compulsion may contend that voting is a civic duty, such reasoning can be seen as unconvincing as it fails to acknowledge that abstention is a perfectly valid form of political expression.
Through an analysis of mandatory voting from a wider democratic perspective, the idea that compulsion is an infringement of free will becomes increasingly apparent. In addition to the obvious paradox that a democratic country forces its constituents to vote, a truly free nation should allow for the demonstration of dissatisfaction and make provisions for a refusal to identify political beliefs.
Although commentators in favour of compulsion may assert that the ability to provide an informal or ‘donkey’ vote facilitates this, the inefficiencies these contribute to as well as its inherent irrationality, given they are discounted, are persuasive arguments against such an opinion. Moreover, although there is a certain degree of legitimacy in the claim that obligatory voting serves to augment the democratic ideals of equality and participation, compelling a person to vote is ultimately, according to academic Katherine Swenson, antithetical to the concept of individual freedom.
A common belief maintained by supporters of compulsory voting is that it creates a more politically active electorate. Whilst in theory this is conceivable, its practical limitations make the alleviation of indifference a distant reality. In support of this, a 2007 experiment conducted by Peter Loewen et al. in a Quebec election found that required voting had “little or no effect” on the knowledge and engagement of its participants. In the Australian context, despite the assumption that the problem of participation is solved by mandatory laws, in the last election around one-fifth of eligible Australians failed to cast a usable vote. It is argued that candidates and parties rely on these laws to get voters to the ballot.
If this is the case, perhaps the solution is to abandon compulsory voting and thus force parties to organically incite a politically active populace through enticing and innovative policies. The dichotomy of democracy is that it demands both individual freedoms and equality. A great difficulty of modern politics has been the ability to strike a balance between these paradigms, and to determine at what point one must be truncated to enhance the other. Through an analysis of compulsory voting through a constitutional, democratic and practical context, it has become clear that such a regime has no place in a society that strives to exist as an epitome of democracy. The time has now come for Australia to abandon its paternalistic voting laws and entrust its political future with the voluntary voice of the Australian public, and not in a piece of legislation that commands it to speak.
REFERENCE LIST/ BIBLIOGRAPHY:
1. Chong, D, Davidson, S & Fry, T 2005, ‘It’s an Evil Thing to Oblige People to Vote’, Policy (St Leonard’s NSW), vol. 21 no. 4, pp. 10-16.
2.Gray, A 2012, ‘The Constitutionality of Australia’s Compulsory Voting System’, Australian Journal of Politics & History, vol. 58, no. 4, pp. 591-608.
3.Hoffman, R & Lazaridis, D 2013, ‘The Limits of Compulsion: Demographic Influences on Voter Turnout in Australian State Elections’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 28-43.
4.Krishna, V & Morgan, J 2012, ‘Voluntary voting: Costs and benefits’, Journal of Economic Theory, vol. 147, no. 6, pp. 2083-2123.
5.Lever, A 2010, ‘Compulsory Voting: A Critical Perspective’, British Journal of Political Science, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 897-915.
6.Loewen, PJ, Milner, H & Hicks, BM 2008, ‘Does Compulsory Voting Lead to More Informed and Engaged Citizens? An Experimental Test’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 655-672.
7.Singh, S 2011, ‘How Compelling is Compulsory Voting? A Multilevel Analysis of Turnout’, Political Behaviour, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 95-111.
8.Swenson, KM 2007, ‘Sticks, carrots, donkey votes, and true choice: a rationale for abolishing compulsory voting in Australia’, Minnesota Journal of International Law, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 525-552.
Gordon, SB & Gary MS 1997, ‘Cross-National Variation in the Political Sophistication of Individuals: Capability or Choice?’, Journal of Politics, vol. 59, no. ?, pp. 126-147.
Hooghe, M & Koen,P 1998, ‘Compulsory Voting in Belgium: an Application of the Lijphart Thesis’, Electoral Studies vol. 17?, no. ?, pp.419-424.