A case for making voting a legal obligation

To state the obvious, the basic principles of keeping democracy healthy and effective are, first, that democracies work best when every citizen participates, and second that all citizens must be fully informed and fully invested in seeing peace and prosperity in the society overall.

To the extent that both of those principles are followed, a democracy will likely flourish. Many democracies today are much less healthy than they could be because they take their stability for granted and fail to abide by one or both of those principles.

Few democracies require their citizens to vote, although most now at least give all the right to do so. One of the most important results of the lack of voter mandatory participation is that activist political factions have a disproportionate voice.

Political campaigns are not much different from any other marketing campaign, except that the product being sold is a vote.

Often a small but dedicated segment of the market can swing the outcome of an election, as has been often observed and much discussed.

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Voting ought to be just as much a legal obligation as are taxpaying or completing basic education, and for many of the same reasons. Also, in countries that have trial by a jury of peers, citizens are often required by law to serve as jurors when called upon by the local government.

An informed, interested, and committed electorate is equally as important to political "markets" as it is to stock markets.

Most capitalist nations have strict laws against buying or selling stock based on information not available to the market as a whole (that is, insider trading).

One of the most important results of the lack of mandatory voter participation is that activist political factions have a disproportionate voice.

At first, that sort of law seems counterintuitive. If you know something that others don't, then why shouldn't you be free to gain an advantage from your special knowledge?

The justification for the laws against insider trading is that markets are information processing systems, and that if information is not available to all participants in the market, then the market cannot operate efficiently.

Political markets are arguably even more dependent on free and open information, and yet there are no laws against "insider trading" of political favors.

Because many citizens feel powerless to influence a government largely controlled by political activists and the cronies of the powerful, they make little investment in becoming educated about issues relevant to political decisions.

As more people withdraw from the democratic process, the activist segments become even more influential, alienating the voting public even further.

Finally, as the public at large opts out, the political marketplace becomes a stage for the loudest and most strident voices, not necessarily of the wisest and most balanced in terms of what would most benefit the public commonwealth over the long term.

Those political players that fail to gain an advantage by shouting do so by whispering in private with those in power, through either direct or indirect bribery.

The larger public, meanwhile, is too uninspired and uninformed to respond to the political corruption that undermines their greater interests.

For democracies to remain vital, we ought to change the political culture so that voting is considered not only a right but an obligation. All citizens ought to be required to register to vote upon reaching the age of majority, and should be fined or in some cases even imprisoned if they do not vote in all local, regional, and national elections.

Those who pay taxes are obliged to vote. If they do not, democracies will degenerate until they serve only extremism and those policies that mainly benefit the noisy or the wily few.

As the political environment of a democracy degenerates, only activists have much clout.

An activist-dominated democracy raises a contradiction. The democracy becomes less democratic as political discourse tends to become a matter of one activist group competing against another at all costs, even by deceiving and pushing aside the interests of the moderate majority.

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Just as the Newtonian law of motion asserts that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction, the agenda of one activist group will soon be countered by an equally vehement activist group of the opposite persuasion.

As a result, the political scene grows more shrill all the time, with each side trying to shout down the other. That makes it difficult for the opposing sides to listen to each other and find a solution that would incorporate the better parts of both worlds.

Voting ought to be just as much a legal obligation as are taxpaying or completing basic education, and for many of the same reasons.

In some ways, it might be better not to participate in political activism at all, even for worthwhile causes, but rather to let the opposing side reveal its motivations, realize some of its goals, and then to exhaust itself. That is admittedly a more Taoist approach than most Western political true believers would be willing to swallow and could only work if voting were mandatory.

Most of the changes to society that have made life better for ordinary people during the past century have come about through persistent and often personally perilous activism. At the same time, the most perverse political movements have also been brought about through activism.

The amplifying effect of electronic media and the increasing complexity of issues facing contemporary societies mean that the political "products" being sold are becoming more extreme.

One way to dampen that extremism and bring more positive and longer lasting change to society is for the whole population to participate so that ideas filter through the broader voting marketplace.

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The founders of most democracies probably never imagined that a majority of the population would someday choose not to vote, and most have not written that requirement into basic law.

Examples of nations that do have compulsory voting are Australia, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The Netherlands did have compulsory voting until in 1970, and Austria also had it but recently repealed it. Mandatory voting is quite common in Latin America.

If voting were compulsory, then an influential minority would have to persuade the majority of voters that its interests would benefit everyone. When only a fraction of the population votes, however, then the influential minority only needs to hoodwink a relatively small number of strategically important voters in order to push through its interests.

As the saying goes, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but it's hard to fool all the people all the time.

One argument against mandatory voting is that individuals ought to have the freedom not to vote for any of the candidates or parties. To answer to that concern, voters should be given the right to abstain, although they would still have to appear at the polls to cast their abstention.

Another concern is that mandatory voting could lead to oppression by the majority. That is a risk inherent to democracy itself, for which there is no simple safeguard. However, one underlying premise of democracy is that over time the majority itself will absorb some of the better ideas of its minorities.

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Because mandatory voting would threaten the interests of the influential few, it seems hard to imagine that it would become law in the present times.

Still, it may be worthwhile to spread the idea and inspire people to think about it.

Mandatory voting gives the voice of moderation its due place in politics.

A good government ensures the peace and stability of its citizens, giving them freedom to prosper and pursue their own aims. An excellent government does that much, as well, but also leads the population to do what needs to be done in order to anticipate and solve problems common to the whole society.

Mandatory voting, along with high-quality mandatory public education, seem indispensable to achieving those ends.

Michael Webb, 2004

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