Does Mandatory Voting Help Democracy?

A Duty Worth Honoring

By Guillermo Calvo Mahé

The debate on mandatory voting is in vogue. Clearly, every obligatory act violates the autonomy of a person, and this is one of the biggest arguments against it. Another argument, a more elitist one, is that it is better that people with no education, or without an informed judgment, do not participate in elections.

A pragmatic reason against it is that mandatory voting is too expensive to implement. For others, however, there is no real democracy without mass participation.

In order to analyze systems and political institutions, aiming to improve them, it is essential to work with clear concepts, eliminating propaganda. In this case, it is necessary to define the concept of “democracy.”

In the strict sense, it must be understood as a system based on free elections, with open participation of all citizens, and in which important decisions are made by most of them. Therefore, elections in which the winner doesn’t receive the support of a real majority, are not truly democratic.

It is essential to deal with reality instead of wishful thinking, and the reality is that although democracy is spoken of as an ideal system, there are few parts in the world where it actually works. In Colombia, the reasons for its failure are diverse: some are institutional, others ethical, but most of them have to do with the lack of participatory tradition.

When voluntary participation does not work, there are three realistic options to take. The traditional one is to simply ignore the problem and “move on.” The most drastic one is to abandon the democratic system outright.

For other people, however, it seems more reasonable to adopt the mandatory vote. This is not about reinventing the wheel, since the system is already operating in some states, although we should admit it is no panacea.

If a mandatory voting system is adopted, there must be negative consequences for those who do not comply with the “obligation,” but these need not be drastic. They could include fines based on economic strata, with public-service options for those who cannot pay (such as picking up litter in public places).

Thus, implementing compulsory voting should not be expensive, and it could even generate public resources. Anyway, the worst that could happen would be to have clean public spaces.

It is true that mandatory voting infringes the concept of freedom, but the other two pillars of the liberal political regime — democracy and pluralism — also do that. Therefore, the biggest challenge of liberal constitutions is to balance the tension between these three desirable, but counteracting concepts.

Something is lost in each one of them, but for those who believe in this system, while not perfect, it is the best that has been found. In this case, it is believed that it is worth losing a little bit of autonomy with mandatory voting, if the result is a real and efficient democracy.

As its Athenian creators believed, in a democracy, political participation is a duty and not a mere right.

Guillermo Calvo Mahé is a Colombian writer and political commentator who holds a post-doctoral degree (LL.M.) in international legal studies from New York University. He is chairman of the political science, government, and international relations programs at the Autonomous University of Manizales (UAM). Follow @Inannite.

No Democracy without Freedom

By Estefano Chamoun Carrera

EspañolThis is a complicated question with a simple answer: no. Mandatory voting does not help to achieve a better democracy. It is a mistake to think that there is more of a participatory democracy when all citizens are required to vote.

In fact, that’s precisely the problem, that they are forced to do it. The exercise of democracy is imposed on them when, above all, the process is meant to be free.

Ecuador is a country where voting is compulsory, and non-compliance leads to fines and even to the suspension of certain rights. Therefore, it is necessary to differentiate between citizens who actually exercise their right to vote to actively participate in the democratic election — showing interest in the society of which they are part of — and those who simply avoid the, quite problematic, consequences that abstention may bring.

I am not in favor of abstention, but forcing citizens to vote has more serious consequences than having a small number of voters. Democratically speaking, an electoral process in which those who vote are required by law to do so loses legitimacy. Their decision is made with little awareness and interest.

Generally, as has happened in Ecuador, disinterested voters end up choosing the candidate who offers more, who gives away more things during his campaign, or who even has a better physical appearance. Few of us actually take the time to check out their policy plans, ideologies, or political models.

And we must remember that this is not just any decision; we are choosing the people who will run the country. I therefore consider it irresponsible to continue forcing people who do not have an adequate preparation, or who are simply not interested in being part of the process of popular election, because we are opening the door to corruption. We are electing presidents — mostly populist — who take advantage of this flaw in our electoral system to get into power.

It is wiser to have elections with only a part of the electoral roll, formed by interested citizens who are aware of the decision they will make and the impact this will have on the future of their country. That stands in contrast to general elections where all citizens vote due to force and without any knowledge.

In the latter scenario, the only beneficiaries are the politicians who already bought the people with favors and false promises during their campaign. However, criticizing without providing solutions doesn’t help.

There may be fears that optional voting will bring a society with little patriotism and social responsibility, and that participation in electoral processes may be too low. However, tather than resorting to force, via the law, we should consider other strategies.

Let’s invest in voter-awareness campaigns, and prepare citizens to elect their representatives, so they can freely exercise their right to vote. Mandatory voting, based on mere formal requirements — as the history of my country has shown — has led us to make mistakes on the ballot more than once.

Estefano Chamoun Carrera is an Ecuadorian law student at Espíritu Santo University (UEES). He is a libertarian, and works as an active member of Students For Liberty in Ecuador. Follow @echamoun.

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