In order to be termed democratic, a regime must have certain characteristics. Even though political theorists debate the scope and depth of the characteristics of a democracy, there is a common understanding that certain minimum requirements comprise a democratic regime. In Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Robert A. Dahl identifies seven characteristics that should typically exist in a democracy. These are elected officials, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, right to run for office, freedom of expression, alternative information, and associational autonomy. The practices of these and similar characteristics vary from country to country. Inclusive suffrage in most representative democracies is understood as a requirement, allowing citizens the opportunity to influence their government through voting, and universal suffrage is seen as a sufficient condition. In some regimes, however, inclusive suffrage has been made mandatory by the introduction of compulsory voting.
There are different levels of compulsory voting. In its simplest form, there are legal regulations according to which voting is compulsory. The regulations can be stated through a common law or they can be coded in the constitution of the country. Moreover, this legal obligation can either be sanctioned or remain a mere moral proclamation. Further, sanctions can either consist of economic penalties in the form of a fine or there can be other legal consequences. The legal consequences vary, from the voter providing a legitimate reason for his or her abstention to disenfranchisement to imprisonment, the most severe consequence. Although imprisonment is not generally enforced as a penalty, in theory a court of justice can impose imprisonment if the nonvoter has failed to pay the fine. In any case, compulsory voting should not be seen as a discrete variable, but rather as an ordinal scale with different levels of compulsion.
Regulations on compulsory voting are not very common. According to an estimate by International Idea (Gratschew 2002), only some thirty countries have regulations on compulsory voting and of these only eight enforce it strictly. These countries are Australia, Belgium, Cyprus, Fiji, Luxembourg, Nauru, Singapore, and Uruguay. Also in the canton of Schaffhausen in Switzerland compulsory voting is strictly enforced, whereas voting in the other Swiss cantons is voluntary. In any case, less than one-fifth of the world’s countries have any regulation on compulsory voting. Further, strictly enforced compulsory voting is a rarity; in less than 5 percent of all countries, compulsory voting is strictly enforced.
Compulsory voting has documented effects on voting behavior, particularly turnout. Strictly enforced compulsory voting boosts turnout, but also weakly enforced voting tends to increase turnout. However, merely a moral compulsion does not seem to affect turnout. Based on data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, Module 1, Pippa Norris in her book Electoral Engineering (2004) demonstrated that countries in which compulsory voting is strictly enforced have an average of 20 percentage points higher turnout than countries where voting is optional or where compulsory voting is not sanctioned in any way. Countries with weakly enforced compulsory voting systems fall in between, with an average turnout of 84 percent.
Compulsory voting tends to increase the number of invalid votes. Voters who do not have clear preferences but are still forced to the polls protest by voting blank or casting an invalid vote. According to David Farrell in his Electoral Systems (2001), the highest share of invalid votes in the 1990s was cast in Brazil, where the share was 19 percent. In Brazil, compulsory voting is weakly enforced.
Compulsory voting does not seem to contribute to a politically literate electorate. According to Kimmo Grönlund and Henry Milner in their article “The Determinants of Political Knowledge in Comparative Perspective” (2006), Belgium, a European country with a proportional electoral system and a multiparty system in combination with strictly enforced compulsory voting, deviates from its relevant European family in the dispersion of political knowledge. Political knowledge is highly dependent on the level of formal school education in Belgium, a pattern that is more typical for newly developed and developing countries, and not typical for European old democracies with proportional electoral systems.
Compulsory voting interferes with the logic of rational voting and abstaining. Since educated voting always involves personal effort, such as acquiring information and comparing parties’ policies, it is rational that many people do not want to vote. In his book Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), Anthony Downs deduced that if voting were costless only people with preferences would vote and people with no preferences would abstain. In a system with compulsory voting the odds that a single vote is decisive are less than in a system where voting is optional and some people always abstain. The incentives to form an informed electoral opinion in order to cast a vote are therefore low in systems with strictly enforced compulsory voting. Contrary to policymakers’ efforts to engage citizens politically by introducing compulsory voting, the system is more likely to increase the probability of uninformed and randomly assigned voting than to educate citizens. In the mid-2000s, however, there are no reliable comparative data on the effects of compulsory voting on political knowledge and informed voting.
SEE ALSO Elections; Electoral Systems; Voting; Voting Patterns; Voting Schemes
Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row.
Farrell, David M. 2001. Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave.
Franklin, Mark N. 2004. Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Freedom House. Freedom in the World. http://www.freedomhouse.org/.
Gratschew, Maria. 2002. Compulsory Voting. In Voter Turnout Since 1945. A Global Report, 105–110. Stockholm: International IDEA.
Grönlund, Kimmo, and Henry Milner. 2006. The Determinants of Political Knowledge in Comparative Perspective. Scandinavian Political Studies 29 (4), 386–406.
IDEA. 2005. Electoral System Design: The New International IDEA Handbook. Stockholm: International IDEA.