Automatic for the people: use your ballot, stay at home - or cast a donkey vote?


Given the low turnout for last week’s referendum, should Ireland introduce compulsory voting – or would that create more problems than it would solve, asks ROSALIND COMYN

THE RECENT REFERENDUM, which saw just half of those eligible to vote taking to the polling booths, sparked some public debate on voter turnout. In terms of parliamentary elections, Ireland has witnessed a steady decline in the numbers of eligible voters casting ballots since 1992, in line with a trend across western Europe and much lamented by politicians.

Over the past 20 years, turnout in general elections has slumped from 73.7 per cent to 63.7 per cent, and the percentage of the electorate voting in referendums has languished below 60 per cent since the 1995 divorce referendum.

In an attempt to mitigate this, 31 countries, including Australia, Belgium, Greece, Brazil, Argentina and Singapore, have made voting compulsory. In these countries the right to vote implies a civic duty to vote. In some countries this is symbolic and relies on the moral weight of the law; in others, people who fail to vote – or fail to turn out – face sanctions.

Compulsory voting increases turnout by an estimated 10-15 points, and by even more in regional and local elections.

To address a slump in voter turnout to below 60 per cent in 1922, Australia introduced mandatory voting in 1924. If eligible citizens fail to cast their votes they face fines of about €15 to €40. The average turnout there is more than 90 per cent.

Belgium has similar levels of turnout. Citizens who do not vote face a moderate fine, or if they fail to vote in at least four elections they can lose the right to vote for 10 years. In Singapore, non-voters are removed from the electoral register until they reapply and provide a reason for their abstention.

So does the concept of compulsory voting enhance democracy by increasing representativeness or damage it by curbing the freedom to choose not to vote? Those who think it’s good for democracy say that the more citizens abstain, the less representative the electoral result becomes. Critics of compulsory voting maintain that the right to vote implies a right not to vote. The question is whether the cost of this freedom outweighs the benefits of increased turnout.

Creating a system in which voting is compulsory implies that an increased level of turnout is good in itself.

Politicians, perhaps subconsciously, adapt their policy to suit those who they know will reward or punish them in the polling booth. Turnout is often related to socio-economic class; well-off people are more likely to vote than are those in areas of deprivation. If everyone is compelled to vote, politicians must take account of everyone.

In practical political terms, it could be assumed that this would produce a system that favours the left. However, Australia has also experienced the problem of the “donkey vote”, in which people who have little interest in politics select a candidate at random – often the top candidate on the ballot paper.

But while compulsory voting is undoubtedly effective at bringing less engaged people to the polls, it is not necessarily effective at increasing their knowledge or facilitating engagement. There is little evidence, for example, that the Australian voter is more engaged or better informed than the Irish or British voter.

WHILE THE CONCEPTof compulsory voting has cropped up from time to time in the UK, where some Labour voices have flirted with the idea, it has never been on the political agenda in Ireland. The reality is that it would not be politically feasible. As Prof Michael Gallagher of the department of political science at Trinity College Dublin says, the introduction of such a system where people had been accustomed to voluntary voting would face too much resistance, both popular and political.

It does, however, raise an interesting question: should our aim be a high-voter turnout? Should we desire turnout for turnout’s sake? Clearly, we need greater levels of engagement and reduced barriers to participation, but compulsory voting seems to create more problems than it solves.

The problem is not only that turnout is low, though that may be a symptom of the problem; the greater problem is a lack of engagement with politics. The solution may involve less crude, less radical measures that would target this issue. Perhaps the most important of these is a comprehensive political education. “The bottom line is that low turnout is a symptom of disengagement or disinterest, neither of which can be cured by forcing people to the polls,” says the barrister and Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan.

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