Is voting a right or a responsibility? In January this year, while hearing a petition pertaining to electoral reforms, the Supreme Court remarked that it would be commendable if the government made it incumbent on all eligible citizens to cast their votes in the upcoming election. Responding to these remarks, Attorney General of Pakistan (AGP) Irfan Qadir argued that while voting was the right of every citizen, the option of not voting was also in itself a right. Early last month, however, when the Election Commission of Pakistan sent a set of proposed electoral reforms to the law ministry, it included the Supreme Court’s observation that steps be taken to make voting legally binding.
The way of the world
The Supreme Court’s observation is neither novel nor new. In Athenian democracy, which was based on the idea that every citizen must partake in decision-making, punitive measures were sometimes taken against those who didn’t attend the assembly. A Greek comedy by Aristophanes depicts slaves herding Athenians into the assembly meeting-place using a rope stained with red; those whose clothes bore red marks – indicating that they had to be coerced – would be punished.
As pointed out by AGP Qadir in his response to the Supreme Court, at present, voting is mandatory in only a few countries, excluding the United States, Canada and majority of European nations. Indeed, it appears that only 31 countries – out of the slightly-less-than-200 in the world – currently have compulsory voting systems; of these, approximately a dozen or so actually make an effort to enforce it. In Belgium, which has the oldest arrangement of this kind, people who do not vote may find themselves slapped with a fine; if they abstain from voting in at least four elections, they may lose their right to vote for the next 10 years. In Bolivia, a non-voter may be barred from withdrawing his or her salary from the bank for three months. And in Brazil, non-voters may be deprived of a passport until they vote in the two following elections. But in a country like Pakistan, such measures may encounter hurdles of feasibility – many citizens, particularly women in rural areas, do not possess national identity cards, which are required to cast one’s vote – as well as implementability.
The measures to implement mandatory voting, however, need not necessarily be elaborate; as proponents of paternalism often argue, a simple ‘nudge’ might sometimes suffice but the dividends could be immense. According to political scientist Arend Lijphart, mandatory voting has been found to lead to an increase of seven to 16 per cent in voter turnout in national elections — even when the penalties for not voting were extremely low, such as a very small fine. This could potentially be a game-changer in a country with plummeting rates of voter turnout; during the 2008 general election, for instance, barely 44 per cent of registered voters in Pakistan turned out to cast their votes. Moreover, it is argued that after the introduction of mandatory voting, the funds currently required to coax voters to the polls could be diverted elsewhere. Indeed, supporters maintain, an election under the system of compulsory voting better reflects the collective will of the people — as opposed to which party was able to goad voters to cast their ballots on election day. Critics argue, however, that those voting under compulsion may not necessarily make informed choices, citing the ‘donkey vote’ phenomenon whereby voters merely tick the first candidate’s name on a list.
AGP Qadir’s initial argument also holds merit, however. Compulsory voting is, in essence, a ‘compelled speech act’: just as freedom of speech guarantees the right to not speak, the decision to not vote also ought to be guaranteed. And indeed, the fact that 56 per cent of eligible voters chose not to exercise their right to choose their representatives should serve as a wake-up call for current politicians, to devise new ways of rousing an ostensibly apathetic electorate.
Sources: Media reports and Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma by Arend Lijphart