Editorial: Should voting be mandatory?

polling_station-the-star-croppedIs it time to make voting compulsory? Almost certainly not. But we have to do something so more people will vote in Hamilton in 2014.

Supposing you lived in Hamilton, Australia instead of Hamilton, Ontario. (Yes, it exists — it’s a small agricultural township in Australia’s south.) Supposing, again, you lived there in an election year, and in the previous election only 40 per cent or so of eligible voters bothered to vote. Do you think the turnout in the upcoming Australian election would be better? We’re betting it would, and by a large margin. Why?

Because if you don’t vote in Australia, you’re breaking the law. If you stay home, the Australia Electoral Commission will send you a letter directing you to vote, or provide a legitimate written explanation, or pay a $20 penalty. If you fail to comply, the matter is referred to court, where if you are found guilty, you can be fined up to $170, plus costs, and a criminal conviction can be recorded against you.

Australia is not alone. Worldwide, more than 20 countries have compulsory voting rules, among them Argentina, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (yes, really, proving that compulsory voting doesn’t always equate to democratic rule), Ecuador, Luxembourg, Singapore, Belgium, Dominican Republic, Panama, Thailand and Turkey. But only a handful actually enforce mandatory voting laws, Australia included.

Are these countries on to something? Ancient Athenians held that it was every citizen’s duty to participate in public decision-making, and sometimes those who refused to do so faced public reproach. To put all this in a modern context, what’s the point in having a democracy if less than half the people who should be taking part in it — at least in one of the most critical aspects of it, that being voting — bother to get out of their chairs and get to the ballot box? Isn’t this the same as saying less than half of us care, and wouldn’t mind if someone, hopefully a benign entity, came along and did the democratic heavy lifting?

This, dear readers, is hyperbole. We’re not actually suggesting handing over the reins to a benign dictator. In fact, we’d probably oppose compulsory voting if it was proposed for Ontario, because the idea is offensive and an affront to our right to choose freely. It’s a bit like mandatory volunteerism — but wait, we already do that with our high school students, don’t we?

We are trying to get your attention. We’re devoting a big chunk of our front page, considerable cyberspace real estate and many human resources to a simple message: A local election is coming in eight months, and we all know how quickly that time can pass. It is time for those of us who are already engaged to get more engaged, and those of us who are not yet engaged to become so. Term limits. Urban issues. Transportation. Potholes and sidewalks. Leadership and vision. Expect to hear about all these and much more. Hopefully, you’re ready. Otherwise, we may have to send the voting police around for a quick chat.

-Howard Elliott, Managing Editor, The Hamilton Spectator

-Editorial for the Saturday, January 25, 2014 edition

See more stories, opinion and commentary at thespec.com

Note: Editorials reflect the view of the newspaper, not necessarily the individual author.

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