Thursday, October 4, 2012

Compulsory voting?

I dislike people telling me what to do. I particularly dislike people hiding their preferences behind moralist abstract language. So informing me that voting is 'for the common good' or 'a civic duty' is almost guaranteed to raise my ire because I find the arguments behind compulsory voting (compulsory either through legal penalties or social pressure) largely silly with a few exceptions. 

The most common claim is that voting is important for its own sake, that each citizen has a duty to vote. Failure to vote threatens all of our freedoms by reducing the voting electorate and thereby making it easier for extreme groups to gain power through intimidation. Voting on the other hand results in more representative government and better educated citizens.Therefore we should all vote for the common good and to protect our freedoms.

I find this argument unpersuasive. Firstly collectivized ethics such as the near arbitrary definitions of civic duty and 'the general good' represent a far greater threat to freedom than me not voting. Individuals have rights and individuals have freedoms – not groups or communities or organizations. I find it absurd that I should be coerced or pressured into voting in order to safeguard the freedoms of other individuals against a hypothetical threat.   

A good democracy will have several layers of checks and balances that prevent the abuse of power.  We divorce the civil service from democratic structures firstly to ensure continuation when the ruling party may change every four years and secondly to reduce corruption. We constitutionalize and enshrine certain rights and freedoms precisely to make them difficult to change. For example we normally require a separate election and the consent, even passive consent, of the majority of the population before making changes to a national constitution.
The mistake the civic duty brigade make is in placing the emphases on voting, on how people get into power. They are in love with the wonderful democratic process, they enjoy the drama of politics and they think we should all share their enthusiasm for selecting which of the three or four candidates will retire in four years with a large lifelong pension.  

But surely the more important concern is how easily we can remove people from power?  After all, extreme parties were elected into power during times of economic recession and social unrest. A large electorate was no bar to the rise of the fascists.  

The next common argument is for compulsory voting is ‘no vote, no voice’. This is not a completely stupid argument because demographics who do not vote are more easily targeted by politicians and demographics that do vote are treated with kid gloves.  But this is an appeal to self-interest and not good grounds for compulsory voting.

A variant on the above is ‘if you don’t vote, then you don’t have a right to criticize the government’.  I find this a complete non-sequitur. I could claim that if you voted for the government, then you lack the moral right to criticize the government or if you don't play guitar then you don't have a right to criticize a guitar player.  

My moral right to offer an opinion on the government of my state is not conditional on participation on the electoral process. I cannot help but form an opinion on the actions of a government. This is beyond my control (short of turning off all news and avoiding people). The argument then is that I should not express that opinion because I did not participate in the electrical process. This assumes I knew all the actions of  the  government in advance and by not voting I did not to help prevent those actions. This is rarely the case. But even if true it is still a non-sequitur to claim I should not express my opinion.

Voting is a right I can choose to exercise or not to exercise. More often than not I choose not to vote because I prefer not to legitimize a mediocre candidate into power and privilege. More often than not I prefer to let those who actually care about the political process make the decision.

If voter apathy is a sign of declining democracy, then treat the causes not the symptoms. 


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