Compulsory voting

Compulsory voting
Compulsory voting, enforced.
Compulsory voting, not enforced.
Compulsory voting, enforced (only men).
Compulsory voting, not enforced (only men).
Historical: the country had compulsory voting in the past.

Compulsory voting is a system in which electors are obliged to vote in elections or attend a polling place on voting day. If an eligible voter does not attend a polling place, he or she may be subject to punitive measures such as fines, community service, or perhaps imprisonment if fines are unpaid or community service not performed.



Athenian democracy held that it was every citizen's duty to participate in decision making, but attendance at the assembly was voluntary. Sometimes there was some form of social opprobrium to those not participating. For example Aristophanes's comedy Acharnians 17–22, in the 5th century BC, shows public slaves herding citizens from the agora into the assembly meeting place (pnyx) with a red-stained rope. Those with red on their clothes were fined.[1]

Arguments in favour

Compulsory voting ensures a large voter turnout. This means a victorious candidate or party clearly represents a majority of the population, not only politically motivated individuals who would vote without compulsion. This helps ensure that governments do not neglect sections of society that are less active politically. Victorious political leaders of compulsory systems may claim a higher degree of political legitimacy than those of non-compulsory systems with lower voter turnout.

Another important benefit is that compulsory voting prevents interference with access to the vote. In a similar way that the secret ballot is designed to prevent interference with the votes actually cast, compelling voters to the polls for an election mitigates the impact that external factors may have on an individual's capacity to vote such as the weather, transport, or restrictive employers. If everybody must vote, then restrictions on voting are easily identified and steps are taken to remove them. It is a measure to prevent disenfranchisement of the socially disadvantaged. Polls are generally held on a Saturday or Sunday as evidenced in nations such as Australia, to ensure that working people can fulfill their duty to cast their vote. Postal and pre-poll voting is provided to people who cannot vote on polling day, and mobile voting booths may also be taken to old age homes and hospitals to cater for immobilized citizens.

If voters do not want to support any given choice, they may cast spoilt votes or blank votes. According to compulsory voting supporters, this is preferred to not voting at all because it ensures there is no possibility that the person has been intimidated or prevented from voting should they wish. In certain jurisdictions, voters also have the option to vote none of the above if they do not support any of the candidates to indicate clear dissatisfaction with the candidate list rather than simple apathy at the whole process.

Compulsory voting may encourage voters to research the candidates' political positions more thoroughly. Since they are voting anyway they may take more of an interest into the nature of the politicians they may vote for, rather than simply opting out. This means candidates need to appeal to a more general audience, rather than a small section of the community.

A result of this setup is that it is therefore more difficult for extremist or special interest groups to vote themselves into power. Under a non-compulsory voting system, if fewer people vote then it is easier for smaller sectional interests and lobby groups to motivate a small section of the people to the polls and thereby control the outcome of the political process. The outcome of a election where voting is compulsory reflects more of the will of the people (Who do I want to lead the country?) rather than reflecting who was more able to convince people to take time out of their day to cast a vote (Do I even want to vote today?).

Political scientist Arend Lijphart writes that compulsory voting has been found to increase voting by 7–16% in national elections, and by even more in local and provincial elections and elections to the European Parliament. The large increases in turnout are found even where the penalties for not voting are extremely low. He argues that other civic duties also exist, like paying taxes, attending school and, in some democracies, military conscription and jury duty. All of these obligations require far more time and effort than voting does, thus compulsory voting can be seen as constituting a much smaller intrusion of freedom than many other activities.

Apart from the increased turnout as a value in itself, Lijphart lists other advantages to compulsory voting. First, the increase in voting participation may stimulate stronger participation and interest in other political activities. Secondly, as no large campaign funds are needed to goad votes to the polls, the role of money in politics decreases. Thirdly, compulsory voting acts as a sort of civil education and political stimulation, which creates a better informed population. Fourthly, high levels of participation decreases the risk of political instability created by crises or dangerous but charismatic leaders.[2]

Arguments against

Compulsory voting can be seen as infringing a basic freedom of the citizen. Some consider the fining of recalcitrant voters to be more oppressive still.

Some believe that voting is not a civic duty, but rather a civil right. While citizens may exercise their civil rights (free speech, marriage, etc.) they are not compelled to. Furthermore, compulsory voting may infringe other rights. For example, most Jehovah's Witnesses believe that they should not participate in political events. Forcing them to vote explicitly denies them their freedom of religious practice. In some countries with compulsory voting, Jehovah's Witnesses and others may be excused on these grounds. If however they are forced to go to the polling place, they can still use a blank or invalid vote.

Some do not support the idea of compulsory voting, particularly if they have no interest in politics or no knowledge of the candidates. Others may be well-informed, but have no preference for any particular candidate, and have no wish to give support to the incumbent political system. Such people may vote at random simply to fulfill legal requirements: the so called donkey-vote may account for 1-2% of votes in these systems, which may affect the electoral process. Similarly, citizens may vote with a complete absence of knowledge of any of the candidates, or deliberately skew their ballot to slow the polling process or disrupt the election.

Another group opposed to compulsory voting are principled nonvoters. They believe that the political process is inherently corrupt and violent, and prefer to minimize their personal involvement with it. If one adheres to Murray Rothbard's view of the state as a "gang of thieves writ large" then compulsory voting is a form of conscription into the largest mob with the biggest guns.

Supporters of voluntary voting assert that low voter participation in a voluntary election is not necessarily an expression of voter dissatisfaction or general political apathy. It may be simply an expression of the citizenry's political will, indicating satisfaction with the political establishment in an electorate.[citation needed] Former Australian opposition leader, Mark Latham, urged Australians to hand in blank votes for the 2010 election. He stated the government should not force citizens to vote or threaten them with a fine.[3]

By countries


  • (U.S.) State of Georgia in 1777 (10 years before the Constitution of 1787 established the United States of America):
Every person absenting himself from an election, and shall neglect to give in his or their ballot at such election, shall be subject to a penalty not exceeding five pounds; the mode of recovery and also the appropriation thereof, to be pointed out and directed by act of the legislature: Provided, nevertheless, That a reasonable excuse shall be admitted. [4]
  • Austria (introduced 1929 for presidential elections and 1949 in some states for parliamentary elections, abolished step by step between 1982 and 2004)
  • Netherlands (introduced 1917 along with universal suffrage, abolished 1970)
  • Spain (1907–1923, but not enforced)
  • Venezuela (removed in 1993)[5]

Present day

There are currently 25 countries with compulsory voting.[6] Of these, only 10 countries (and one Swiss canton) enforce it. Of the 30 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 10 had forms of compulsory voting.[7]


These are the 10 countries that enforce compulsory voting:

  • Argentina (compulsory for citizens between 18 and 70 years old, non-compulsory for those older than 70. However in primaries, citizens under 70 may refuse to vote, if they formally express their decision to the electoral authorities, at least 48 hours before the election. This is valid only for the subsequent primary, and needs to be repeated every time the voter wishes not to participate.)
  • Australia – Compulsory enrollment and voting for state and national elections for all eligible adults (18 and above). In some states local council elections are compulsory too.[8]
  • Brazil[9] (non-compulsory for citizens between 16 and 18 years old, those older than 70 and illiterate people)
  • Chile
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Ecuador (compulsory for citizens between 18 and 65 years old; non-compulsory for citizens aged 16–18, illiterate people, and those older than 65
  • Nauru
  • Peru (compulsory for citizens between 18 and 70 years old, non-compulsory for those older than 70)
  • Singapore[10] (compulsory for citizens above 21 years old with effect from 1st January of the year of election)
  • Uruguay

There is one region in Switzerland that enforces compulsory voting:

Not enforced

Countries that do not enforce compulsory voting:

Measures to encourage voting

Although voting in a country may be compulsory, penalties for failing to vote are not always strictly enforced. In Australia and Brazil, providing a legitimate reason for not voting (such as being sick or outside the country) is accepted. In Argentina, those who were ill on voting day or over 500 km away from their voting place are also excused, by requesting a doctor to prove their condition, in the first case or asking for a certificate at a police station near where they are in the second case. Belgian voters can vote in an embassy if they are abroad or can empower another voter to cast the vote in their name, to do this the voter must give a "permission to vote" and carry a copy of the eID card and their own on the actual elections.

States that sanction non-voters with fines generally impose small or nominal penalties. However, penalties for failing to vote are not limited to fines and legal sanctions. Belgian voters who repeatedly fail to vote in elections may be subject to disenfranchisement. Goods and services provided by public offices may be denied to those failing to vote in Peru and Greece. In Brazil, if you fail to vote in elections, you are barred from obtaining a passport before having voted in the two most recent elections, which can delay your passport for years. If a Bolivian voter fails to participate in an election, the citizen may be denied withdrawal of his or her salary from the bank for three months.[12]

In Turkey, according to a law passed by the parliament in 1986, if an eligible elector does not cast a vote in the elections, then they pay a fee of about 5 Turkish liras (about $8 US).

It has also been suggested that a payment to voters could prove an incentive without penalising the poor by means of a fine (such as £20 to those who vote or a free lottery ticket).[13]

See Also


  1. ^ Malkopoulou, Anthoula, Compulsory Voting in Greece: a history of concepts in motion, p. 4
  2. ^ Lijphart, Arend (1997) “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma”, The American Political Science Review 91(1): 8–11
  3. ^ "Blank vote legitimate, Latham asserts". Retrieved 2011-10-04. 
  4. ^ "Constitution of Georgia, 5 February 1777". The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. Retrieved 2007-12-07. 
  5. ^ Elliot Frankal. "Compulsory voting around the world | Politics |".,,1521096,00.html. Retrieved 2011-10-04. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Evans, Tim. Compulsory Voting in Australia, Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved on 2007-01-01.
  8. ^ Australian Electoral Commission Site On Rules Governing Compulsory Voting In Federal and State Elections
  9. ^ Timothy J. Power: Compulsory for Whom? Mandatory Voting and Electoral Participation in Brazil, 1986–2006, in: Journal of Politics in Latin America. S. 97–122
  10. ^ "Constitucion Política Del Perú". Retrieved 2011-10-04. 
  11. ^ Niet-stemmers riskeren geen straf (in Dutch) De Morgen 06/06/2009
  12. ^ Compulsory voting around the world, The Guardian, 4 July 2005
  13. ^ Szreter, Simon (May 2002). "A central role for local government? The example of late Victorian Britain" (in English). History & Policy. United Kingdom: History & Policy. Retrieved 9 December 2010. 

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