Mandatory Voting Works, That’s the Problem

After election night concessions and congratulations are done, the news inevitably reports on the low voter turnout. Ontario’s recent election actually featured an increase in voter turnout for the first time in two decades. That’s the good news. The bad news is turnout was still only 52%. While any democracy should want to improve on a number like that, mandatory voting may be the worst way I can think of to do so.
Australia is often cited as proof of mandatory voting’s success. The Australian Electoral Commission tells us voter turnout rose to over 90% immediately after the introduction of mandatory voting. This is precisely the problem. I will happily concede mandatory voting increases voter turnout, but it does so in the same way scoring into an empty net increases the score. It may add to the total, but not in any meaningful way.
Centering the argument for mandatory voting on increasing turnout ignores a key point. Voter turnout should increase because more people want to vote, not because they have to. If it’s a cause, candidate or leader they support or even one they don’t, we want more people voting because they have a reason to. Simply put, “because I said so” is not reason enough. We are trying to engage an electorate, not make a 5 year old eat their vegetables.
That may sound like idealism, mainly because it is. Governments must make enough concessions to the practical over the ideal once they are elected. How a government is elected should not be one of them. If politicians have to make voting mandatory to increase the electorate’s engagement it is not the electorate who have failed, it is the politicians.

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