Soon enough the federal election will be over and we will be able to switch from arguing about politics to arguing why nobody gives a shit about politics. Three of the last four Canadian federal elections have set the record for lowest voter turnout and while the 2006 election reversed the historic trend, still less than 65 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast their ballot. With the current campaign deficient in dramatics and overshadowed by a momentous battle south of the border, there is not much to suggest that voter turnout will improve this time around. Perhaps then, it is time to confront this issue head on; to do something drastic-- perhaps it is time to make voting mandatory-- but, then again, perhaps not.
Currently, there are over 30 states around the world practicing some form of mandatory voting. Australia, for example, instituted compulsory voting in 1924 in response to the 59 per cent voter turnout during the 1922 federal election (only two per cent less than the 2004 Canadian low). The Australian law makes it mandatory to vote in all elections, under penalty of a $20 fine. While this punishment may seem like a small deterrent, it nonetheless has the desired effect: Australian voter turnout hovers around 90 per cent. Belgium too, has compulsory voting legislation and is even stricter than Australia. Failure to vote in four elections within a 15-year period can lead to a Belgian citizen being stripped of his or her right to vote in the future. This however, is probably not a major concern to the apathetic non-voter.
This issue can essentially be reduced to the question of whether voting is a civic duty or a civil right. The Australians believe it to be a civic duty-- much like paying taxes-- but is it? If the majority of people stopped paying taxes it would constitute a serious crisis for the government. On the other hand, if the majority do not vote, there would still be a Parliament elected and able to govern. Furthermore, when women and minorities fought for the franchise, they were demanding the right to vote, not the duty to do so.
The institution of mandatory voting is the wrong method for addressing low voter turnout. The key to a strong democracy is not a high turnout, but an informed electorate. Mandatory voting would ensure that those citizens not interested in politics would vote. But do we really want this demographic exercising this right? These people abstain from voting because they are uninformed and largely apathetic about politics. It is doubtful that forcing them to vote will magically stoke their inner political fire, bringing to the fore an informed passion for politics. Instead, they are more likely to vote for the party representing their favourite colour for example, (perhaps green, orange or even red, but not blue) than take the time to learn the issues. These people aren't currently voting and that's the way it should be.
There are other ways to try and engage the apathetic non-voters than mandating voting. One need only look at the 2004 American Presidential election for inspiration. During that election Sean "The Puff Diddy" Combs, with his Vote or Die campaign, personally threatened to kill anyone who didn't vote. Though undoubtedly terrifying, the campaign sought to inform young voters of the issues and was somewhat successful. In the end, Combs did not even have to carry through with his threat of mass murder.
While it may be ideal to have a higher number of informed voters taking part in Canadian elections, making voting compulsory will not accomplish this. As long as a large segment of the population remains ignorant of the issues, it is best that they remain on their couches while the more politically responsible of us exercise our democratic right.