QJ Politics: A mandatory vote

This week’s performance in the Kingston municipal election was, in a word, abysmal.

This trend of low voter turnout is hardly related to whom we elect to City Hall. Canada’s voter turnout federally went from a healthy 75 per cent in the 1960s to an underwhelming 60 per cent at the last federal election — and the decline, by all indicators, will continue to grow.

What’s more troubling, however, is the youth voter turnout. Of any age group in Canada, youth hold the lowest rate in casting the ballot, at just 38 per cent in the last federal election.

As the National Post’s Andrew Coyne noted in a piece from May, majority governments today are formed with just one in five adults citizens who voted.

This statistic is about the same as elected governments a century ago, when universal suffrage didn’t extend to women. If Canadians are questioning democratic legitimacy as a result of poor voter turnout, for Canadian youth, we’re almost certainly in crisis.

We’ve spent a considerable amount of time theorizing why turnout is poor, particularly among youth: we’re turned off, we’re tuned out and we’re explicitly ignored. Very little, though, has been offered in the way of tangibly ameliorating how to get us to the voting booth.

The instinctive response is rather simple: mandatory voting. And yet, the idea is not without its charges.

The suggestion that citizens can’t be compelled to act by the state under threat of penalty is plainly absurd. Most cited in this instance is paying taxes and serving jury duty.

Under the banner of liberal democracy, it should be reasonable to assume that citizens are compelled to pay tax and serve duty because they’re necessary for the state’s survival. But anything outside of what’s necessary is un-liberal.

Even still, there are a variety of actions the state compels us to do, be it wearing helmets and seatbelts, requiring businesses to be wheelchair accessible or requiring non-discriminatory policies on the services we provide.

For many, myself included, voting is a matter of duty, and framed as such, there’s good reason for it to be compulsory. Much like paying taxes, casting your vote is contributing to the collective decision-making process in providing for your fellow citizen’s needs.

Moreover, mandatory voting isn’t nearly as inconvenient as many of the other inconveniences you face as a Canadian.

Waiting 20 minutes to have your say at the table every four to five years hardly seems palpable in consideration of the hours on end you spend waiting for healthcare, driving tests and health card or passport renewals.

It’s also worth noting that mandatory voting would be implemented with several considerations. As a citizen, you would of course, retain your right to decline the ballot — none of the above option — or spoil the ballot in protest.

Additionally, implementation would require necessary exemptions, and reasonable incentives (small fine penalties or tax credits).

But to those who are disinclined to view voting as a duty, there are also instrumental reasons for favouring mandatory voting.

Political optimists such as the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt liken mandatory voting as a means to become more informed citizens.

While some observations from the more than 30 countries across the globe that partake in some form of compulsory voting are promising — especially cases like Australia with 72 per cent public satisfaction — they don’t impute to compulsory voting.

Instead, I want to suggest a different route that pays attention to youth in particular.

With youth turnout so low, and with age being the best predictor, youth are often explicitly, and as a matter of electoral strategy, excluded by politicians and their parties — as I’ve written about previously in this column.

To this end, mandatory voting is of particular interest to youth insofar as it doesn’t simply compel youth to vote, but also compels politicians to speak directly to youth, our issues and our values. Mandatory voting means we can punish politicians at the ballot box for ignoring us.

Politicians will pay attention to us because they have to. More profoundly, this also extends to those groups and communities that are similarly vulnerable, underprivileged, less educated or in some way ostracized by electoral politics.

Unintuitive as it may be, youth ought to be the biggest champions of the mandatory vote, because quite frankly, we would have the most to gain.

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