Compulsory voting is an effect of laws which require eligible citizens to register and vote in elections, and may impose penalties on those who fail to do so. As of August 2013, 22 countries provide for compulsory voting, and 11 of them — about 5% of all United Nations members — enforce it.
Athenian democracy held that it was every citizen's duty to participate in decision making, but attendance at the assembly was voluntary. Sometimes there was some form of social opprobrium to those not participating. For example, Aristophanes's comedy Acharnians 17–22, in the 5th century BC, shows public slaves herding citizens from the agora into the assembly meeting place (Pnyx) with a red-stained rope. Those with red on their clothes were fined. This usually happened if fewer than 6,000 people were in attendance, and more were needed for the assembly to continue.
Belgium has the oldest existing compulsory voting system. Compulsory voting was introduced in 1893 for men and in 1948 for women, following universal female suffrage. Belgians aged 18 and over and registered non-Belgian voters are obliged to present themselves in their polling station; while they don't have to cast a vote, those who fail to present themselves (without proper justification, or having appointed a proxy) at their polling station on election Sunday can face prosecution and a moderate fine. If they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years. Non-voters also might face difficulties getting a job in the public sector. In practice fines are no longer issued for non-voters (7.4% of all voters did not vote at the 2018 local elections) but fines will be levied upon those chosen to invigilate at the polling stations.
Australia has compulsory voting. Queensland introduced compulsory voting for state elections in 1915. (The requirement is merely to have one’s name marked on the electoral roll.) Victoria introduced compulsory voting in 1926, New South Wales and Tasmania in 1928, Western Australia in 1936 and South Australia in 1942. The compulsory voting age was reduced to 18 in 1974. Compulsory voting for national elections was introduced in Australia in 1924, following a pronounced fall in turnout at the 1922 federal election. It was introduced for federal elections for "British subjects" aged 21 and over, but was not compulsory for indigenous Australians until 1984. Moreover, in the states of Queensland and Western Australia, indigenous Australians were specifically disqualified, even though they were officially recognised as British subjects. Voting for indigenous Australians was introduced in 1949, but enrolment and having one's name marked on the voting register was not compulsory for indigenous Australians until 1984.
Compulsory voting is a generalised view that democratic election of governing representatives is the responsibility of citizens, rather than a right afforded citizens constitutionally to nominate representatives. Equating in kind to similar civil responsibilities such as taxation, jury duty, compulsory education or military service, voting in these democracies is regarded as one of the "duties to community" mentioned in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This view asserts that, by introducing an obligation to vote, all citizens governed by a democracy partake in the responsibility for the government appointed by democratic election. In practice, this appears to produce governments with more stability, legitimacy and a genuine mandate to govern, which in turn benefits all individuals even if an individual voter's preferred candidate or party is not elected to power.
This notion is especially reinforced when both men and women are required to vote, and further sustained by diligent enforcement of laws requiring registration of all eligible voters (deemed adult, and without exclusion of any significant community within the population).
The idea that compulsory voting results in a higher degree of political legitimacy is based on higher voter turnout. Referring back to the Australian experience, voluntary voting prior to 1924 accounted between 47% and 78% turnout of eligible voters. Following the introduction of compulsory federal voting in 1924, this figure jumped to between 91% and 96%. with only 5% of eligible voters accounted as not enrolled.
Venezuela and the Netherlands are countries that have moved from compulsory voting to voluntary participation. The last compulsory Dutch and Venezuela elections were in 1967 and 1993, respectively. Turnout in the subsequent national poll in the Netherlands decreased by around 20%. Venezuela saw a drop in attendance of 30% in 1993 once compulsion was removed.
Supporters of compulsory voting also argue that voting addresses the paradox of voting, which is that for a rational, self-interested voter, the costs of voting will normally exceed the expected benefits. The paradox disproportionately affects the socially disadvantaged, for whom the costs of voting tend to be greater. Australian academic and supporter of compulsory voting, Lisa Hill, has argued that a prisoner's dilemma situation arises under voluntary systems for marginalised citizens: it seems rational for them to abstain from voting, under the assumption that others in their situation are also doing so, in order to conserve their limited resources. However, since these are people who have a pronounced need for representation, this decision is irrational. Hill argues that the introduction of compulsory voting removes this dilemma.
Supporters of compulsory voting also argue that the secret ballot is designed to prevent interference with the votes actually cast, compelling voters to the polls for an election removes interference with accessing a polling place, reducing the impact that external factors such as the weather, transport, or restrictive employers might have. If everybody must vote, restrictions on voting are identified and steps are taken to remove them.
The impact of technology and recent social trends are indicating a growing voter preference towards pre-polling: where the voter fulfils their obligation more at their own convenience prior to polling day rather than trying to arrange release from their responsibilities on the nominated date of polling.
Other perceived advantages to compulsory voting are the stimulation of broader interest politics, as a sort of civil education and political stimulation, which creates a better informed population, although no studies have been undertaken to demonstrate that the populations of Belgium or Australia for instance, where compulsory voting has long existed, are better informed and more politically aware than the populations of New Zealand, France, Canada or the Scandinavian countries, where voting has never been compulsory. It is also argued that since campaign funds are not needed to goad voters to the polls, the role of money in politics decreases. Moreover, campaign funds can be directed towards explaining policies to voters. With non-compulsory voting, the ability of a political machine to get out the vote of its supporters may influence the outcome. High levels of participation decreases the risk of political instability created by crises or charismatic but sectionally focused demagogues.
A 2005 Inter-American Development Bank working paper purported to show that there was a correlation between compulsory voting, when enforced strictly, and improved income distribution, as measured by the Gini coefficient and the bottom income quintiles of the population. However, a more recent Conference Board of Canada study on World income inequality — also relying on the Gini index — shows that income inequality is lowest in the Scandinavian countries, where compulsory voting has never existed, while Australia, and to a lesser extent Belgium, which strictly enforces their compulsory voting legislation, have a higher income inequality level than a number of other Western countries, such as Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, where compulsory voting does not exist.
Monash University political scientist Waleed Aly argues that whether compulsory voting favors the right or the left is beside the point, because the most beneficial aspect of compulsory voting is that it will improve the caliber of individuals who run for office and the quality of the decisions that they make: "In a compulsory election, it does not pay to energize your base to the exclusion of all other voters. Since elections cannot be determined by turnout, they are decided by swing voters and won in the center... That is one reason Australia’s version of the far right lacks anything like the power of its European or American counterparts. Australia has had some bad governments, but it hasn’t had any truly extreme ones and it isn’t nearly as vulnerable to demagogues."
Voting may be seen as a civic right rather than a civic duty. While citizens may exercise their civil rights (free speech, right to an attorney, etc.) they are not compelled to. Furthermore, compulsory voting may infringe other rights. For example, most Christadelphians believe that they should not participate in political events. Forcing them to vote ostensibly denies them their freedom of religious practice. Jehovah's Witnesses view voting as a personal decision to be made based on each one's conscience and understanding of their responsibility to God and to the Government. Many Witnesses do not vote, while taking care to preserve neutrality and not compromise their faith. The law can also allow people to give a valid reason for why they did not vote.
Another argument against compulsory voting, prevalent among legal scholars in the United States, is that it is essentially a compelled speech act, which violates freedom of speech because the freedom to speak necessarily includes the freedom not to speak.
Some do not support the idea of voters being compelled to vote for candidates they have no interest in or knowledge of. Others may be well-informed, but have no preference for any particular candidate, or may have no wish to give support to the incumbent political system. In compulsory voting areas, such people often vote at random simply to fulfill legal requirements: the so-called donkey vote may account for sufficient percentage which has the potential to change the result in close races. (Robson rotation can be used to distribute the donkey vote equally among all candidates, however.) Similarly, citizens may vote with a complete absence of knowledge of any of the candidates or deliberately skew their ballot to slow the polling process and disrupt the election, or vote for frivolous or jokey candidates. Such arguments are frequently aired in Brazil, where opposition to compulsory voting has increased from 43% in 2008 to 61% in 2014 and where two out of ten voters have abstained from voting in recent elections.
Former Australian opposition leader Mark Latham urged Australians to lodge blank votes for the 2010 election. He stated the government should not force citizens to vote or threaten them with a fine. At the 2013 federal election, considering the threat of a non-voting fine of up to $20, there was a turnout of 92%, of whom 6% lodged either informal or blank ballot papers.
Compulsory voting is increasingly resented by citizens in some countries such as Brazil, the largest country where compulsory voting is enforced: at the last presidential election in 2014, some 30 million voters, about 21% of registered voters, did not vote, despite the fact that Brazil has some of the most severe penalties enforced against non voters.
A study of a Swiss canton where compulsory voting was enforced found that compulsory voting significantly increased electoral support for leftist policy positions in referendums by up to 20 percentage points. Another study found that the effects of universal turnout in the United States would likely be small in national elections, but that universal turnout could matter in close elections, such as the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. In the United States, Democrats would most likely fare better under universal voting (as nonvoters are generally more Democratic) but due to the dearth of close races in the United States, universal voting would change "very few election outcomes." Research on compulsory voting in Australia found that it increased the vote shares and seat shares of the Australian Labor Party by 7 to 10 percentage points and led to greater pension spending at the national level. While [weakly enforced] compulsory voting in Austria increased overall turnout by roughly 10 percentage points, there is "no evidence that this change in turnout affected government spending patterns (in levels or composition) or electoral outcomes." A 2016 study finds that compulsory voting reduces the gender gap in electoral engagement in several ways. A 2016 study of the Netherlands found that the abolition of compulsory voting increased the vote share of Dutch social democratic parties while reducing the vote share of "minor and extreme parties". Research suggests that higher rates of voter turnout lead to higher top tax rates.
Australians have generally supported compulsory voting. In 1943, an opinion poll found that around 60 percent of Australians who voted support compulsory voting. This support peaked in 1969, at 76 percent. In 1996 support fell to 70 percent, eventually falling to 67 in 1997. In 1946, a survey conducted by the Netherlands Institute of Public Opinion (NIPO), in the Netherlands, reported that 66 percent of those asked favored repealing compulsory voting. However, in 1966, the public was polled again, this time by the Politics in the Netherlands survey, and responded 69 percent in favor of the policy. In 1967 the Free University of Amsterdam polled voters on whether they thought the compulsory voting laws at the time were "right" or "wrong"; 70 percent of those asked answered "right", 28 percent answered "wrong", and 2 percent gave no opinion. In January 1969 the Netherlands Institute of Public Opinion polled again, and found 53 percent of those asked were in favor of abolishing compulsory voting, while 29 percent wished to keep it. In 1999, support for compulsory voting in the Netherlands was just at 35 percent.
Current use by countries
As of August 2013, 22 countries were recorded as having compulsory voting. Of these, only 10 countries (additionally one Swiss canton and one Indian state) enforce it. Of the 30 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 10 had forms of compulsory voting.
These are the countries and sub-national entities that enforce compulsory voting:
- Argentina – Introduced in 1912 with the Sáenz Peña Law. Compulsory for citizens between 18 and 70 years old, non-compulsory for those older than 70 and between 16 and 18. (However, in a primary election, citizens under 70 may refuse to vote if they formally express their decision to the electoral authorities at least 48 hours before the election. This must be repeated for each election in which the voter refuses to vote.)
- Australia – Introduced for state elections in Queensland in 1915, excluding Aboriginal (indigenous) Australians. Victoria introduced compulsory voting in 1926, New South Wales and Tasmania in 1928, Western Australia in 1936 (excluding indigenous Australians), and South Australia in 1942. It was introduced for federal elections in 1924 for “British subjects” aged 21 and over, but was not compulsory for indigenous Australians until 1984. The compulsory voting age was reduced to 18 in 1974.
- Belgium – Introduced in 1894. Every citizen and registered non-Belgian voter, from the age of 18 has to present themselves in their designated polling station on election day (always a Sunday), however casting a legal vote is not compulsory, legal sanctions still exist for those failing to present themselves, or appoint a proxy, without proper (legal) justification, but only the sanctions for absent appointed polling station staff have been enforced by prosecutors since 2003.
- Brazil – Compulsory for literate citizens between 18 and 70 years old, including those who live abroad. Not compulsory for Brazilians aged 16–17 (the voting age in Brazil is 16) or over 70 or illiterate citizens of any age. A justification form for not voting can be filled at election centers and post offices.
- Ecuador – Introduced in 1936. Compulsory for citizens between 18 and 65 years old; non-compulsory for citizens aged 16–18, illiterate people, and those older than 65.
- Luxembourg – Compulsory for Luxembourg citizens aged between 18 and 75 who live in Luxembourg; not compulsory for Luxembourg citizens who are over 75 or live abroad. Foreign citizens (in local and European elections only) may register to vote once they have lived in Luxembourg for 5 years. This is a free choice, not a requirement; however, once an eligible foreign citizen has registered to vote, then voting is compulsory for them.
- North Korea – Everyone over age 17 is required to vote. However, only one candidate appears on the ballot. Voting is designed to track who is and isn't in the country. Dissenting votes are possible but lead to repercussions for voters.
- Nauru – Introduced in 1965.
- Peru – Introduced in 1933. Compulsory for citizens between 18 and 70 years old, non-compulsory for those older than 70.
- Singapore – Compulsory for citizens above 21 years old as of the date of the last electoral roll revision. For example, the 2015 election has the cut-off date on 1 July 2015.
- Uruguay – Introduced in 1934, but not put into practice until 1970.
- Switzerland – only at the sub-national level in the Canton of Schaffhausen. Compulsory voting was introduced in several cantons starting in the late 19th century, but by 1974, it had been abolished everywhere except in Schaffhausen.
Countries that have compulsory voting by law but do not enforce it:
- Bolivia – Introduced in 1952.
- Bulgaria – Introduced in 2016.
- Costa Rica
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Dominican Republic – Compulsory from the age of 18.
- Italy - 1945-1993. Only symbolic sanctions (publication of lists of non-voters and mention in police certificates that the person had failed to vote, respectively for one month and five years after the election).
- Lebanon – Compulsory for all men, and authorized for women at age 21 with elementary education
- Paraguay – Compulsory for citizens between 18 and 75 years old, non-compulsory for those older than 75.
- Turkey – The ₺22 fine in law is generally not enforced.
Past use by countries
- Austria - Introduced in 1924.
- Chile - Removed from the Constitution and replaced with voluntary voting in 2009; voluntary voting was regulated and put into practice in 2012; all eligible citizens aged 17 and over are automatically enrolled, but only those over 18 on election day may vote. Citizens selected by a commission to be polling officers are obliged to comply.
- Cyprus - Introduced in 1960. Abolished in 2017, after having been inactive for many years.
- Fiji - Abolished in 2014.
- Guatemala - Abolished in 1990.
- Netherlands - Introduced in 1917 along with universal suffrage, abolished in 1967.
- Philippines - Compulsory and enforced during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos.
- Portugal - 1933 Portuguese constitutional referendum, not enforced.
- Spain - 1907–1923, but not enforced.
- Switzerland - Widespread among the country's 26 cantons in the 19th century but progressively abandoned since then with only Schaffhausen still retaining it.
- US State of Georgia - By Article XII of the 1777 Constitution This provision was omitted from the revised Georgia constitution of 1789.
- Venezuela - Removed in 1993.
Measures to encourage voting
Although voting in a country may be compulsory, penalties for failing to vote are not always strictly enforced. In Australia and Brazil, providing a legitimate reason for not voting (such as illness) is accepted. In Argentina, those who were ill on voting day are excused by requesting a doctor to prove their condition; those over 500 km (310 mi) away from their voting place are also excused by asking for a certificate at a police station near where they are. Belgian voters can vote in an embassy if they are abroad or can empower another voter to cast the vote in their name; the voter must give a "permission to vote" and carry a copy of the ID card and their own on the actual elections.
States that sanction nonvoters with fines generally impose small or nominal penalties. However, penalties for failing to vote are not limited to fines and legal sanctions. Belgian voters who repeatedly fail to vote in elections may be subject to disenfranchisement. Singaporean voters who fail to vote in a general election or presidential election will be subjected to disenfranchisement until a valid reason is given or a fine is paid. Goods and services provided by public offices may be denied to those failing to vote in Peru and Greece. In Brazil, people who fail to vote in an election are barred from obtaining a passport and subject to other restrictions until settling their situation before an electoral court or after they have voted in the two most recent elections. If a Bolivian voter fails to participate in an election, the person may be denied withdrawal of the salary from the bank for three months.