Compulsory Voting: For and Against

Compulsory Voting: For and Against

This book is co-authored by Jason Brennan and Lisa Hill, and its structure is one of a kind. Part 1 (4 chapters) is written by Jason Brennan and presents reasons against compulsory voting. Part 2 (another 4 chapters) is written by Lisa Hill and defends reasons for compulsory voting. The book concludes with a "conclusion" where the authors summarize their arguments. Thanks to this structure, the authors have the opportunity to directly address each other, and readers can easily transition from one argument to its counterargument within the same book.

Reasons Against (Brennan)

1. Good consequences are not enough

The fact that higher turnout can lead to higher-quality political outcomes, such as increased civic engagement, improved political equality, and better policies, does not justify coercion.

Attending operas and ballets can also enhance culture and potentially improve democracy, just as getting better sleep can make people happier. However, no one has ever attempted to make culture mandatory or force people to get more sleep.

Just because something is valuable does not mean we can compel citizens to actively pursue it.

“People are free to act indifferently toward many of the things the ought to value and promote.”

2. Democracy is Not = Good

Brennan argues that “democracy” is “a method for determining when and how a government will coerce people.” It does not guarantee better representation and economic growth and not even equal representation.

3. Lower Quality of Gov't

Compulsory voting implies that anyone whatever their level of political knowledge and awareness will vote. This can be problematic because the probability of the number of people making bad choices at the polls will increase, and this will harm everyone. We don’t need everyone to vote, he argues, especially if many of them do not enough how to vote well.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Bad Government (1337-39).

Moreover, there are psychological studies in politics that show a strong correlation between greater political engagement and greater political conflict. Brennan argues that a political mindset may even undermine social solidarity instead of increasing it because it tends toward polarization. Instead of becoming sympathetic to the opponent's cause, political engagement biases citizens' policy positions.

4. Too Many Votes

Paradoxically, the higher the number of people voting, the lower the probability that your vote will make a difference. Brennan contends that compulsory voting will disempower, rather than empower, citizens as they now need to convince even more people to vote for their party. As a result, the groups more likely to win will be those with more resources, time, and the ability to self-organize.

Reasons For (Hill)

1. Legitimate Sovereignty

Usually, turnout figures indicate the legitimacy of a government. Low turnout figures signal that people no longer wish to be sovereign, and therefore, they do not care about democracy. She believes that people's satisfaction with democracy and the status quo, which can be a reason why they do not vote, must be expressed periodically. It is not enough that people are entitled to vote; they must vote to signal that they care about the democratic process.

2. More Equality

Hill argues that the decrease in voting is concentrated among poor ad disadvantaged people. Therefore, their refusal to vote translates into lower representation and less favorable policies for them. Drawing from the example of Australia, she emphasizes that the rate of electoral turnout is positively correlated with higher government redistribution.

3. Positive Political Liberty

There are times when one has to limit one's liberty in order to promote another, potentially greater one. Hill argues that autonomy and individual freedom may be restricted when it comes to voting to advance economic and political equality for the less privileged, thereby enhancing their (positive) political liberty.

4. Collective Action

Hill does not consider voting as an individual action, something you do on your own. Instead, she believes you owe something, such as participating in the democratic process, to your community and your country. According to her, since democracy generates collective benefits, there is a reciprocal obligation among all citizens to vote and sustain the system of democratic representation. The collective benefits include the enhancement of political liberty and equality. Voting is seen as a social activity rather than an individual one.

My Take Today

I always find it extremely difficult to fully understand people who simultaneously support democracy and compulsory voting. I mean, the two concepts are not inherently inconsistent with each other, and we have instances of compulsory voting in democracies such as Australia.

My problem is that the only arguments that can support this vision are consequentialist and moralistic. Therefore, if we do not agree that democracy has intrinsic value(s) and/or that there is a greater good to secure that can only be achieved with higher turnout, that vision crumbles. Not to mention that it is difficult to understand how we could still refer to a liberal democracy if it is actually based on compulsory voting.

While I'm still waiting to be persuaded by moralistic arguments, I want to highlight that we should not be compelled to participate in a process in which we do not want to take part.

One thing is to obey and respect the rules and verdicts that result from that process, and on this I am (mostly) fine. Another thing is mandatory voting, which is coercing people to take part in a process they do not wish to be a part of. I already accept to obey the will of the majority, why do you also want me to participate in shaping the will of the majority, especially given that I will accept whatever outcome?

This is reminiscent of  Rousseau's Social Contract. As voting secures democracy, which in turn secures a greater good – including some form of freedom, apparently – even if you do not want to, you "will be forced to be free."

Once you decide to defend democracy for consequentialist and moral reasons, you have determined that democracy (or voter turnout) will be the societal goal to secure and pursue.

Once you have made this decision, you will start solving the game through backward induction.

In other words, to secure and pursue democracy, what needs to be done? What is the trade-off? The answer is that you will initially trade off individual rights because their protection is not the ultimate goal you have chosen for society. As democracy and voter turnout take precedence over individual rights and often conflict with them, you can trade off certain individual rights (such as the right not to vote) in favor of democracy and higher voter turnout.

Once you have taken this step with regard to voter turnout, how far are you willing to go? Similar to Brennan's argument about opera and culture, would you be okay with mandating people to read newspapers every day and watch political talks to enhance their democratic education?