Should We Force Everyone to Vote?

ByMitchell Shabani

Earlier this month, Argentina proposed legislation that would enhance enforcement and increase punishments for non-voters. This opens the question: should voting be compulsory?

Since the oldest existing compulsory system was introduced in Belgium in 1892, the arguments on each side have been persistently reiterated. Here are only a few of the main points for the two standard sides.

Those in favor of compulsory voting argue:

Voting is not only a right but a duty essential to democracy, comparable to jury duty. Uneven turnout among socioeconomic groups translate to unequal political representation. The costs and burden to voting are minimal compared to other coercive government actions such as taxes. The right to freedom of speech is not infringed as voters can still choose to vote blank or however else they wish.

Those against compulsory voting argue:

The right to vote includes the right not to, and the state has no authority to force people to vote. The compulsory system would be costly and burdensome for the state. Compulsory voting imposes an unjust cost and burden to people who may not even benefit from voting. Forced voter turnout can grant bad regimes the illusion of legitimacy.

However, there is now at least one new element to add to the debate.

In his recent book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan explains that, unlike previous assertions, uninformed voters do not "cancel each other out" but rather lead to harmful policies

"Like moths to the flame, voters gravitate to the same mistakes. They do not cancel each other out; they compound....Unfortunately, the social cost of irrationality can be high even though it is individually beneficial. If one person pollutes the air, we barely notice; but if millions of people pollute the air, life can be very unpleasant indeed. Similarly, if one person holds irrational views about immigration, we barely notice; but if millions of people share these irrational views, socially harmful policies prevail by popular demand."

This has important implications in a compulsory voting system. Those who are disinterested in policy or who have little to gain from learning the issues must now vote nonetheless, further compounding irrational systematic biases.

Fortunately, compulsory voting has not been a very popular system, at least not in practice. Only 23 countries currently host such a scheme. And of those 23 countries, only a few enforce it, with only four imposing “very strict” enforcement (including fines, infringements of civil rights and even possible imprisonment). However, a worrying trend is that of the 23 countries worldwide with compulsory voting, 12 are in Latin America. This is largely a legacy from populist regimes that plagued the continent, but, as demonstrated by Argentina, this idea remains appealing to some and may gain grounds beyond Latin America's socialist and social democratic ALBA countries.

Should voting be compulsory? Is voting not just a right but a duty? What’s the “solution” to low/uneven voter turnout? And will we see a rise or decline in compulsory voting systems throughout democracies worldwide?