Should Canada require citizens to vote or face a fine as Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and eight other countries do? Debate over the merits of compulsory voting seem to spring up every time there’s an election. Proponents see voting as an essential duty of citizenship, and no different in that respect from paying taxes. The Australian experience indicates that even a modest fine of $20 for non-compliance is enough to boost voter turnout to more than 90 per cent. By contrast, Canada’s voluntary voting system has produced an average turnout of 62 per cent over the past five Canadian federal elections. The compulsory voting debate cuts across ideological lines. Supporters include Justin Trudeau’s adviser Robert Asselin on the left and National Post columnist Andrew Coyne on the right. And, for once, good-government advocate Don Lenihan and the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute are on the same page—both opposed mandatory voting.
Advocates of compulsory voting aspire to more than just higher voter turnout. The ultimate goal is to get those who would not otherwise vote to take an interest in politics and public policy issues. Mandatory voting would require politicians and civil servants to address the concerns of those so turned off by the governing process that they avoid voting voluntarily. And citizens not content with the choices offered would still be free to spoil their ballot.
Detractors argue that fining non-voters would be an unnecessary infringement on their right to decide whether or not to participate in the democratic process. The expense of chasing down non-voters to levy fines would add to overall election costs. And skeptics doubt the promised positive impact on public engagement. A 2007 Université de Montréal study showed that students did not gain political knowledge as a result of mandatory voting.
The more recent and more practical example of the 2014 Toronto municipal election demonstrates how compulsory voting could potentially change election outcomes. There is a strong likelihood, based on pre-election polling numbers, that Doug Ford would be mayor-elect today if voting had been mandatory.