On Nonvoting (an essay)
On Election Day, you go to the ballot box and cast a blank ballot – a vote for nobody. This form of political participation regarded perhaps unanimously as a valid form of aspiration. Perhaps you are dissatisfied with all the available options, or you deem yourself as unworthy of making a decision for the entire society. Both reasons are fine, as long as you do step in that ballot box and do submit a ballot sheet.
Then there is another, different case. You don’t go to the ballot box at all. You don’t even step out of your house or make any effort to participate in the elections. Possibly, you forgot to turn on your alarm clock and thus slept for the whole day. You might not know that there is even an election on the day. You might live in a geographically secluded area, far away from civilization. Or, you might be just plain lazy to care about politics. Or, you might have the same reasons as the first case – but you decide that you do not need to go to the ballot box at all.
In many countries in the past, the second case was highly prevalent among citizens. In Australia, in the early 20th century, voter turnout was as low as 40%. To solve this ‘problem’, the Australian government then decided to make voting compulsory.
But several questions then arise. Basically, are such regulations right?
To propose, it may be argued that firstly, voting is a ‘civic duty’, comparable to paying taxes. In a democratic country, it is the civilians who vote and elect the executive government and/or the legislative bodies, thus it becomes a duty for the civilians to vote. And because it is a civic duty, just like paying taxes, it is therefore just for the state to force citizens to go to ballot boxes.
It may also be argued that higher voting turnout results in a ‘more legitimate government’. There are various opinions as to what a more legitimate government means. Mathematically, a legitimate government can be associated with statistical formulae, and fewer voters would mean less valid statistics. A more legitimate government can also be defined as a government with more concessions from society. Society would ‘agree’ with whatever the outcome of the election by attending the elections and voting.
Philosophically, proponents may also argue that more voting turnout would result in a better quality of democracy itself. Since a democracy means a government ‘from’ the people, the more people that engage in elections – a democratic process that determines this government – the more from-the-people this government would be.
And proponents would also argue that compulsory voting is in line with civic education that teaches society to participate in politics, and that compulsory voting would result in a better political climate, in which pools of voters that originally did not vote would be more attractive as swing voters. A higher political awareness may also be realized, where the lazy part of society would be forced to learn more about politics and the political situation in their country. And the other parts of society, who didn’t vote just because they didn’t wake up, would then be forced to wake up, amid the more emphasis of voting that arises with compulsory voting.
Opponents, however, would beg to differ.
Those who oppose compulsory voting may firstly deny that lower voter turnout is a problem in itself. They regard that not going to ballot boxes is just as valid a voice as voting for nothing, thus ‘not going to ballot boxes’ would be just a civic duty as voting is.
Opponents would also do away with mathematics, and argue that society is already well-aware that along with the existence of elections, they have to accept the results of the elections, regardless of them voting or not, as citizens who must bow down to the law. If some people are not aware of the existence of elections or the rules that come along with them, it is always the duty of the government to socialize to these people about law.
Regarding democracy, it may be argued that the idea of democracy is not as simplistic as the existence of a society-elected government. Democracy is broad – the recognition of human rights and freedom of speech, also the concept of a justice system that treats society fairly, are also fundamental elements of democracy. Moreover, forcing mature people, of voting age, who are well-aware of their decision to not vote at all, into going to ballot boxes, would only be harming their freedom of choice, an element of democracy. These people should have the freedom to stay at home or do something else rather than doing something that they regard as useless.
For those who are lazy and careless, opponents may argue that if you force these people to mark a vote, their votes would be just as careless as they are. Maybe they would vote for nothing, but they may also vote for a candidate without rationally thinking of the consequences of voting for that candidate. They would not care about the candidate’s stances on issues nor their plans for the future. They may base their votes on the coolness of the party’s logo. If that is the case, their votes would only harm the results of the election, because people are supposed to vote only because they care about the fate of their country. Careless voters, of course, would not fit this criterion.
Opponents may also argue that a government that resorts to compulsory voting equals a government that surrenders its civic education framework. If civic education is successful and does lead to a society that does not go to the ballots because of rational reasons, why make voting compulsory? Political parties, those who oppose would argue, would already search for every single vote they can grab, even those in remote areas, so there is no need to make democracy worse by obliging people to vote.
And if you didn’t wake up on Election Day, surely your neighbours have the ‘civic duty’ of waking you up.
But then again, there are always two sides to a coin, and two stances to an issue. Heads or tails, to propose or to oppose, you decide.