Mandatory voting – a solution in search of a problem

Don’t vote, it only encourages the scoundrels.

Today’s National Post carries a screed poorly-argued column by some academic-in-training claiming that Canada needs mandatory voting on the basis that his policy preferences aren’t being enacted we need a better, more informed civic culture.  Here’s some of his reasoning:

Well, I’ve changed my mind. I was wrong. We need mandatory voting and we need it now. I’m still concerned that the act of voting on its own will not bring about the sort of robust civic culture that I think our democracy desperately needs. I’m still worried that once turnout jumps to 85 per cent or 90 per cent we’ll consider our job done and fail to address the need to provide Canadians with opportunities and incentives to become practicing, effective citizens. But those risks pale in comparison to the pressing need to get every Canadian of voting age to a ballot box.

 We need mandatory voting now so that the preferences of Canadians are better reflected in our Parliament, our government, our policies, and our laws. One of the ends of an informed, engaged, and critical citizenry is ensuring that that sort of country we live in reflects the preferences of individuals and communities. So far, we’re not nearly as successful at that as we might become.

But the preferences of Canadians are adequately reflected in the outcome of our elections as I’ll explain shortly.after we dig further into Moscrop’s argument.


In the current electoral contest, the party that wins will have the support of very few Canadians. If the fortunes of the Conservative party hold steady or continue to improve, they’ll win. They may even come away with a majority government. But that won’t change the fact that probably fewer than 3 in 10 Canadians of voting age will have voted for them.

Currently, a party can win 100 per cent of the power in Parliament — our system gives extreme latitude to a governing majority — with 40 per cent of the votes of 60 per of Canadians. Or less. Say it with me: that’s absurd. (We also need to change our electoral system to a proportional system in order to address this and related issues, but that’s an argument for another op-ed).

No it’s not absurd, it’s simply people adopting particular priorities in their life.  This is nothing but the worn old trope about how only 60% of eligible voters cast a ballot and so the percentage that voted for the winning party often only amounts to about 25% of the electorate.   This is a completely misguided view that counts non-voters as votes against the winning party.   While there may be some non-voters in any given election who don’t vote because they do not like any of the choices before them, most don’t vote because they simply aren’t interested in the process.  They’ll be just as content the day after the election no matter who wins.   As an act of acquiescence to the outcome of the election it makes more sense to add these non-voters to the tally of voters who voted for the party which topped the ballot.  Of course if we did that, it’d leave one less problem for aspiring PhD candidates to solve.

Of course as Moscrop sees it, this isn’t about individuals’ priorities, but “alienation” of certain groups.

Perhaps most importantly, mandatory voting would generate incentives for the parties to reach out to often marginalized or ignored groups, such as the poor, Indigenous Peoples, and the young. It would give parties a reason — other than the moral imperative to govern justly, which is so often ignored — to take seriously the policy preferences and the needs of these groups. This is especially important when it comes to young people, because they’re a huge voting block; with more of them voting, electoral outcomes would most likely be different. Admittedly, this change would probably be in favour centrist or left parties. But if that’s the will of Canadians, then as committed democrats we should respect that.

Before you scream “Unfair!” let me remind you that it’s the current system that is unfair, since these groups are structurally alienated from politics and thus have no effective representation. Again: young people, Indigenous Peoples, and poor people are neglected. They stay home because they think politics is happening elsewhere and without them. They sit out because they think that their participation in the system is pointless because the game is rigged. They become effectively disenfranchised because they aren’t contacted by politicians because politicians don’t expect them to vote.

How can someone be “structurally alienated” from politics?  The phrase brings to mind some impoverished peasant forced to walk for three days to get to a ballot box which is hardly the case in 21st Century Canada. Perhaps they can’t afford to access news and opinion?  Hardly the case unless he’s going to argue that fully 40% of Canadian voters don’t own a TV, computer, tablet, or smart phone.  Left unsaid is the fact that none of these groups is monolithic – many of their members do vote.  And many Canadians who don’t belong to these groups don’t vote either.  What’s their excuse?

These Canadians aren’t apathetic; they’re alienated; the disconnect that comes from being excluded from politics generates an awful cycle in which those who are left out become further marginalized because they aren’t engaged by politicians and their issues aren’t represented in policy and law. This cycle undermines the representativeness and legitimacy of Canadian democracy. But it’s a cycle that we might be able to break — and that must start with mandatory voting.

Moscrop offers absolutely no evidence to back up his allegations.  And mandatory voting won’t make any difference either.  As it happens, my wife is Australian.  Australia has had mandatory for over ninety years. My wife has voted in Australian elections but she is so completely disengaged that she can’t tell you who she voted for.  She sometimes votes in elections here in the UK, but only when I ask her and only for whom I ask her to.  She’s a married, middle-class professional so she doesn’t fit into any of the categories Moscrop claims are “alienated”. She has even less interest in politics than I have in any sort of Football. According to Moscrop’s logic, forcing me to attend football games would be the first step in turning me into a passionate football fan with informed opinions about which of the Green Bay Packers or the Saskatchewan Roughriders is better placed to beat Manchester United.  Sorry Professor, but it ain’t going to happen.

An old political acquaintance of mine is fond of saying, that if you really want to get people interested in politics, threaten to take way their house/children/dog.  As a strategy to get voters engaged in the electoral process it has its merits, but good luck finding a politician who’ll run with it.


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