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This article summarises objections to compulsory voting developed in my previous work. It shows that compulsory turnout is harder to justify than compulsory voting and that considerations of democratic legitimacy do not usually justify it either. When abstention is morally wrong, it is unlikely to be because it is unfair to those who voted. So concerns for fairness will not justify compulsory voting. The article shows that democracy is a competitive as well as a co-operative business, and this means that political ethics are more complex than proponents of compulsory voting suppose.
It was with some surprise that I read Bart Engelen's ‘Why Liberals Can Favour Compulsory Attendance’ (Engelen, 2009). According to Engelen, I claim that compulsory voting conflicts with ‘free thought, free speech and privacy’ (p. 218). My article did not mention any of these, although I argued that compulsory voting is likely to fall foul of liberal commitments to respect reasonable disagreement over fundamental values when justifying public policy and state coercion (Lever, 2008). I made it clear that most proponents of compulsory voting, including Justine Lacroix (2007), believe that some legal exemptions would be justified on conscientious grounds and would allow – as current Australian law apparently would not – that the legal compulsion would be to ‘turn out’, rather than to cast a legally valid ballot (Hill, 2007, pp. 9, 12). I also argued that proponents of compulsory voting would have to consider the justification for sending people to prison for not paying the fines for not voting (as has happened in Australia) but I never implied that liberal accounts of compulsion could be expected to justify imprisonment simply for failure to vote. Consequently, I find it hard to recognise my arguments against Lacroix in Engelen's defence of compulsory voting (or turnout).
But rather than clarifying my critique of Lacroix, it may be more helpful to clarify my reasons for thinking that compulsory voting is generally at odds with democratic government. My views are the result of prior research on the secret ballot, which first made me realise how complicated the ethics of voting are – far more complex, in fact, than I had assumed (Lever, 2007a). My research on judicial review, on feminism and on privacy and democracy suggests that we often exaggerate the importance of national elections to democratic theory and practice (Lever, 2005, 2006, 2007b, 2009a, 2009b and 2010). Consequently, I believe that efforts to justify compulsory voting – whether in liberal egalitarian terms, as with Lacroix, or more social democratic ones, as with Arend Lijphart (1997) or Emily Keaney and Ben Rogers (2006) – overstate the importance of electoral participation to democratic conceptions of politics, and understate the complexity of democratic morality.
Some background clarifications may be helpful. Proponents of compulsory voting generally believe that people are morally obliged to vote unless they have conscientious objections to voting. No one thinks that there is a moral duty simply to turn out and tick your name off a list at election time unless people have a duty to vote. So, such justification as there is for compulsory turnout is parasitic on the justification of compulsory voting. It is therefore wrong to suppose that it is easier to justify compulsory turnout than compulsory voting. How compulsory voting is supposed to fix the problems of low and unequal turnout at elections is reasonably clear (Lijphart, 1997). By contrast, it is unclear how compulsory turnout is going to solve these problems. Consequently, it is harder, not easier, to justify compulsory turnout than compulsory voting once we have allowed that people with conscientious objections to voting should be exempt from moral and legal duties to vote.
Secondly, I assume that people sometimes have moral duties to vote (Lever, 2008, 2009a and 2009b). However, proponents of compulsion require more than that: they need to show that we are obliged to vote at every election (although characteristically they never explain which elections trigger the case for compulsion and why). So, while I am happy to say that political participation can be intrinsically, as well as instrumentally, valuable, and that sometimes voting is morally required, we need far stronger assumptions about the duty to vote before treating it as compulsory – not least because such a duty implies informed not random voting.
Arguments for compulsory voting typically come in two parts. The first is a claim about political morality; the second is a claim about morality more generally. The first holds that citizens have a moral duty to vote – whether because this is necessary to democratic legitimacy or because the duty to vote is implicit in the justification for voting rights themselves. The second, more general, claim is that fairness or reciprocity supports compulsion, in order to stop non-voters from free-riding on or exploiting voters. Let us take these in turn.
Modern views of democracy assume that competition for political power and opposition to the government of the day can both be justified. Failure to vote, or to vote for the winning candidate, may threaten us with serious losses. So the costs of democratic politics can be real, predictable and painful. But to suppose that we have a duty to prevent those costs is problematic. This is partly because these are risks to our interests that other people are entitled to impose on us via the exercise of their rights; but they are, as well, risks that we are entitled to impose on ourselves, by altruistic voting. This is likely to be true for most voters. Hence, democratic citizens will often have no duty to vote on either self-interested or altruistic grounds.
If compulsory voting is justified, then, we must suppose that one of the main political parties is so inconsistent with democratic values, or with basic human rights, that they could not constitute a legitimate government, however many people voted for them. I think that this is true of racist parties like the British National party (BNP) and explains why most people have a duty to defeat and marginalise their candidates.1 But in democracies this should be the exception, not the rule. In short, because democratic legitimacy means that parties we think seriously mistaken are entitled to govern, the differences between the main candidates for political office will generally not justify moral duties to vote, let alone legal ones.
The ethics of voting have received little attention from philosophers and political scientists. Yet it is plain that they are no more self-evident than other ethical matters, on which attention is lavished. Reasonable people can have the same qualms about voting as they can about marrying, having children, joining a political party or a union. Such qualms can be moral as well as prudential: reflecting doubts about the extent and reliability of their knowledge or judgement; doubts about the consequences of their actions for other people; and doubts about how to reconcile their different duties. We have little control over the circumstances of our vote, and the ways in which it will be interpreted and used by others. So, the ethics of voting are by no means as simple as proponents of compulsion suppose.
Democracy means that we are entitled to participate in politics freely and as equals. However, this does not mean that we must exercise our political rights, however important it is that we should have them; nor does it require us to consider electoral politics more important than other endeavours. In established democracies, our political rights help to protect our interests in political participation whether or not we actually exercise them. Likewise, we need not refuse, accept or offer to marry someone in order for our right to marry to be valuable and valued.
Rights can protect our interests, then, even if we do not use them. For example, they make certain practical possibilities unthinkable. Most of the time we never consider killing others in order to get our way; nor do they consider killing us. So, while it is true that democracy requires people to be willing and able to vote, the empirics of legitimacy, as well as its theory, make turnout a poor proxy for legitimacy or for faith in democratic government (Lever 2009a and 2010).
These, in brief, are my reasons for doubting that democratic norms support compulsory voting. But what about norms of fairness or reciprocity? We have duties of fairness and reciprocity whether or not we are citizens. If these imply that people who are entitled to vote should vote, we would have a remarkably robust justification for compulsory voting; one largely independent of our assumptions about political morality.
But is non-voting the equivalent of free-riding, or of unfairly seeking to benefit from the efforts and sacrifices of others? Political realism suggests that it is not. Whatever is wrong with not voting, it cannot be that non-voters are selfishly exploiting the idealism, energy and public-spirited efforts of the BNP and their ilk. This is not because the latter are evidently more self-interested than other voters. Whether they are or not is an empirical question. The problem, rather, is that we are entitled to refuse, and actively to oppose, the benefits that the BNP seeks to promote.
Non-voters, then, are not exploiting the BNP. Nor are they exploiting self-interested voters, however respectable and democratic the parties for which they voted. It is not obvious, either, that they are exploiting altruistic voters simply because they are not helping them. So, reflection on how and why people vote casts doubt on the idea that non-voters are selfishly preying on the public-spirited efforts of voters (Lever 2009a and 2010). When abstention is morally wrong, therefore, this seems to be because of its consequences for those who are incapable of voting– whether because they are too old, too young, because they are foreign, not yet born and so on – rather than because it is unfair to compatriots who voted.
We can put the point more sharply. The idea that non-voters are free-riders assumes that voting is a collective good – whether because high levels of turnout are necessary to democratic legitimacy or for some other reason. But this begs the question of whether high levels of turnout are a collective good. Turnout has partisan effects. So even if some level of turnout is a public good, voting is not a pure public good as long as it has some bearing on who wins or loses an election. To suppose that people are morally wrong to abstain therefore requires us to assume that the co-operative aspect of voting is more important than the competitive. This is not a conceptual truth about elections, and may be false normatively and empirically (Lever, 2009a and 2010).
We cannot evade the complexity of democratic politics and morality, then, by insisting that democratic elections are a public good. Indeed they are. But this no more requires us to vote than it requires us to join a political party or to stand for election ourselves. A sufficient range and quality of parties and leaders is a prerequisite for democratic legitimacy and, offhand, seems at least as important as ensuring a sufficient quantity and quality of voter participation.2 Moreover, morality sometimes requires people to assume positions of leadership and responsibility that they would otherwise choose to forgo. Nonetheless, it is incredibly difficult to get from the idea that we may sometimes have such duties to the conclusion that we actually do have such duties.
What we are morally required to do in politics depends importantly on what other people do, what they are likely to do and what they are entitled to do.3 Hence the complexities of democratic politics and morality. Political scientists, historians, novelists, playwrights and politicians have done an enormous amount to clarify that complexity. Political philosophers have much to learn from them.