What is compulsory voting?
Most democratic governments consider participating in national elections a right of citizenship. Some consider that participation at elections is also a citizen's civic responsibility. In some countries, where voting is considered a duty, voting at elections has been made compulsory and has been regulated in the national constitutions and electoral laws. Some countries go as far as to impose sanctions on non-voters.
Compulsory voting is not a new concept. Some of the first countries that introduced mandatory voting laws were Belgium in 1892, Argentina in 1914 and Australia in 1924. There are also examples of countries such as Venezuela and the Netherlands which at one time in their history practiced compulsory voting but have since abolished it.
Advocates of compulsory voting argue that decisions made by democratically elected governments are more legitimate when higher proportions of the population participate. They argue further that voting, voluntarily or otherwise, has an educational effect upon the citizens. Political parties can derive financial benefits from compulsory voting, since they do not have to spend resources convincing the electorate that it should in general turn out to vote. Lastly, if democracy is government by the people, presumably this includes all people, then it is every citizen's responsibility to elect their representatives.
The leading argument against compulsory voting is that it is not consistent with the freedom associated with democracy. Voting is not an intrinsic obligation and the enforcement of the law would be an infringement of the citizens' freedom associated with democratic elections. It may discourage the political education of the electorate because people forced to participate will react against the perceived source of oppression. Is a government really more legitimate if the high voter turnout is against the will of the voters? Many countries with limited financial capacity may not be able to justify the expenditures of maintaining and enforcing compulsory voting laws. It has been proved that forcing the population to vote results in an increased number of invalid and blank votes compared to countries that have no compulsory voting laws.
Another consequence of mandatory voting is the possible high number of "random votes". Voters who are voting against their free will may check off a candidate at random, particularly the top candidate on the ballot. The voter does not care whom they vote for as long as the government is satisfied that they fulfilled their civic duty. What effect does this immeasureable category of random votes have on the legitimacy of the democratically elected government?
A figure depicting the exact number of countries that practice compulsory voting is quite arbitrary. The simple presence or absence of mandatory voting laws in a constitution is far too simplistic. It is more constructive to analyze compulsory voting as a spectrum ranging from a symbolic, but basically impotent, law to a government which systematic follow-up of each non-voting citizen and implement sanctions against them.
This spectrum implies that some countries formally have compulsory voting laws but do not, and have no intention to, enforce them. There are a variety of possible reasons for this.
Not all laws are created to be enforced. Some laws are created to merely state the government's position regarding what the citizen's responsibility should be. Mandatory voting laws that do not include sanctions may fall into this category. Although a government may not enforce mandatory voting laws or even have formal sanctions in law for failing to vote, the law may have some effect upon the citizens. For example, in Austria voting is compulsory in only two regions, with sanctions being weakly enforced. However, these regions tend to have a higher turnout average than the national average.
Other possible reasons for not enforcing the laws could be complexity and resources required for enforcement. Countries with limited budgets may not place the enforcement of mandatory voting laws as a high priority still they hope that the presence of the law will encourage the citizens to participate.
Can a country be considered to practice compulsory voting if the mandatory voting laws are ignored and irrelevant to the voting habits of the electorate? Is a country practicing compulsory voting if there are no penalties for not voting? What if there are penalties for failing to vote but they are never or are scarcely enforced? Or if the penalty is negligible?
Many countries offer loopholes, intentionally and otherwise, which allow non-voters to go unpunished. For example, in many countries it is required to vote only if you are a registered voter, but it is not compulsory to register. People might then have incentives not to register. In many cases, like Australia, an acceptable excuse for absence on Election Day will avoid sanctions.
The diverse forms compulsory voting has taken in different countries refocuses the perception of it away from an either present or absent practice of countries to a study of the degree and manner in which the government forces its citizens to participate.
Which countries practice compulsory voting?
Laws, Sanctions & Enforcement
Below is a table containing all the countries that have a law that provides for compulsory voting. The first column lists the name of the country, the second column the type of sanctions that the relevant country imposes against non-voters and the third column contains the information on to what extent the compulsory voting laws are enforced in practice.
|Country ||Type of Sanction ||Enforced ||Year Introduced ||Comments |
|Argentina ||1, 2, 4 ||Yes ||1912 ||- |
|Australia ||1, 2 ||Yes ||1924 ||- |
|Austria (Tyrol) ||1, 2 ||Yes ||Practiced from 1929 to 2004 ||The region of Tyrol. |
|Austria (Vorarlberg) ||2, 3 ||Yes ||Practiced from 1929 to 1992 ||The region of Vorarlberg. |
|Austria (Styria) ||N/A ||Yes ||Practiced from 1929 to 1992 ||The region of Styria. |
|Belgium ||1, 2, 4, 5 ||Yes ||1919 (men) ||Women in 1949. |
|Bolivia ||None/4 ||No ||1952 ||18 years of age(married); 21 years of age (single) |
|Brazil ||2 ||Yes ||N/A ||Voluntary for illiterates and those over 70. Military conscripts cannot vote. |
|Chile ||1, 2, 3 ||Yes ||1925(?) ||- |
|Congo, Democratic Republic of the ||N/A ||N/A ||N/A || |
|Costa Rica ||None ||No ||N/A ||- |
|Cyprus ||1, 2 ||Yes ||1960 ||- |
|Dominican Republic ||None ||No ||N/A ||18 years of age, married persons regardless of age; |
Members of the military and national police cannot vote.
|Ecuador ||2 ||Yes ||1936 ||Compulsory for literate persons ages 18-65, optional for other eligible voters. |
|Egypt ||1, 2, 3 ||No ||1956 ||This is the year from which we have found the earliest law. (Only men are allowed to vote) |
|Fiji ||1, 2, 3 ||Yes ||N/A ||*Presumably strict prior to the coup d'état |
|France (Senate only) ||2 ||No ||1950's or 60's ||- |
|Gabon ||N/A ||No ||N/A ||- |
|Greece ||None |
|No ||1926 |
|Administrative sanctions, including prohibition to issue a passport, a driving license or an occupational license, were officially lifted in year 2000 |
|Guatemala ||None ||No ||N/A ||Military personnel cannot vote. |
|Honduras ||None ||No ||N/A ||- |
|Italy ||5 ||No ||Practised from 1945 to 1993 ||- |
|Lebanon ||N/A ||N/A ||N/A ||21 years of age; compulsory for all males; authorized for women at age 21 with elementary education; excludes military personnel |
|Liechtenstein ||1, 2 ||Yes ||N/A ||- |
|Luxembourg ||1, 2 ||Yes ||N/A ||Voluntary for those over 70. |
|Mexico ||None / 5 ||No ||N/A ||- |
|Nauru ||1, 2 ||Yes ||1965 ||- |
|Netherlands ||- ||No ||Practised from 1917 to 1967 ||- |
|Panama ||N/A ||N/A ||N/A ||- |
|Paraguay ||2 ||No ||N/A ||Up to age 75 |
|Peru ||2, 4 ||Yes ||1933 ||Until the age of 75. |
|Philippines ||None ||No ||Attempt to practice 1972-1986 under martial law. ||- |
|Spain ||N/A ||No ||Practiced from 1907 to 1923 || |
|Singapore ||4 ||Yes ||N/A ||The non-voter is removed from the voter register until he/she reapplies and provides a reason. |
|Switzerland (Schaffhausen) ||2 ||Yes ||1904 ||Practised in only one canton. Abolished in other cantons in 1974 |
|Thailand ||None ||No ||N/A ||- |
|Turkey ||1, 2 ||Yes ||N/A ||- |
|Uruguay ||2, 4 ||Yes ||1934 ||Law not in practice until 1970. |
|U.S.A (Georgia) ||N/A ||No || |
|Stated in 1777 Constitution of Georgia. |
|Venezuela ||N/A ||N/A || |
|Practiced until 1993 |
Table updated March 2009
The numbers listed in the column for Type of Sanction stands for different types of sanctions. These are as follows:
1. Explanation. The non-voter has to provide a legitimate reason for his/her abstention to avoid further sanctions, if any exist.
2. Fine. The non-voter faces a fine sanction. The amount varies between the countries, for example 3 Swiss Francs in Switzerland, between 300 and 3 000 ATS in Austria, 200 Cyprus Pounds in Cyprus, 10-20 Argentinean Pesos in Argentina, 20 Soles in Peru etc.
3. Possible imprisonment. The non-voter may face imprisonment as a sanction, however, we do not know of any documented cases. This can also happen in countries such as Australia where a fine sanction is common. In cases where the non-voter does not pay the fines after being reminded or after refusing several times, the courts may impose a prison sentence. This is usually classified as imprisonment for failure to pay the fine, not imprisonment for failure to vote.
4. Infringements of civil rights or disenfranchisement. It is for example possible that the non-voter, after not voting in at least four elections within 15 years will be disenfranchised in Belgium. In Peru the voter has to carry a stamped voting card for a number of months after the election as a proof of having voted. This stamp is required in order to obtain some services and goods from some public offices. In Singapore the voter is removed from the voter register until he/she reapplies to be included and submits a legitimate reason for not having voted. In Bolivia the voter is given a card when he/she has voted so that he/she can proof the participation. The voter would not be able to receive his/her salary from the bank if he/she can not show the proof of voting during three months after the election.
5. Other. For example in Belgium it might be difficult getting a job within the public sector if you are non-voter. There are no formal sanctions in Mexico or Italy but possible arbitrary or social sanctions. This is called the "innocuous sanction" in Italy, where it might for example be difficult to get a daycare place for your child or similar but this is not formalised in any way at all.