The decline in voter turnout over the last several elections is of great
concern to everyone interested in politics and parliamentary government.
Many ideas have been put forth about how to address this problem including
a recent Bill that would provide for a system of compulsory voting similar
to that used in several other countries. The following article is based
on the speech at second reading by the sponsor of Bill S-22.
Our democracy depends upon the active participation of its citizens, and,
while voting is only one element of political engagement, it remains the
very foundation of our democracy. Reinforcing this foundation is the goal
of Bill S-22, which will establish mandatory voting in Canada.
This legislation is a direct response to a rising electoral crisis. Voter
turnout has been on the decline in Canada since the 1960s, reaching a record
low of just 60.9 per cent in the 2004 election. Other Western democracies
are also experiencing the same dramatic drop. Only 55.3 per cent of Americans
voted in the 2004 presidential election, and the 2001 British general election
recorded a turnout of just 57.6 per cent.
Only one in four Canadians under the age of 25 bothered to vote in the
last election. Research shows that these young people, as they age, may
not re-engage in the system as their parents and grandparents did. Canadian
researchers tell us that this generational shift represents a cultural
change that could shake the very foundation of our democratic institutions.
Research gathered by the Association for Canadian Studies also indicates
that the low turnout rate effectively disenfranchises a large number of
Canadians. A study done after the last election found voter turnout ranged
from 62.7 per cent to 75.4 per cent in the nine ridings with the highest
average income in the country. The nine ridings with the lowest average
income experienced a turnout rate from 45.1 per cent to 61.5 per cent.
Whose voices are being heard? Perhaps, more importantly, whose voices are
not being heard?
Renowned political scientist Arend Lijphart in the United States put it
A political system with the universal right to vote but with only a tiny
fraction of citizens exercising this right should be regarded as a democracy
in merely a... hollow sense of the term.
While analysts cite a variety of reasons for the voting decline including,
sadly, disdain for politicians, apathy about the issues and the hectic
demand of modern life, I believe that the most important factor is a fading
sense of civic duty when it comes to voting and participation in our democratic
In preparing for this legislation, I have met and corresponded with a great
number of Canadians. A great many have said it is about time, and that
we need this kind of signal from the government that voting is still an
important element of our system. Of those opposed to the concept of mandatory
voting, the most common criticism is that the bill will restrict an individuals
freedom to choose whether or not to vote.
Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canadas Chief Electoral Officer answered this criticism
best when he said, The right to vote is only meaningful when you use it.
In Canada all citizens who are at least 18 years of age on election day
have the right to vote in a general election, with the exception of the
Chief Electoral Officer of Canada. We fought long and hard for this right,
overcoming gender, racial, religious or administrative obstacles to ensure
women, judges, persons with disabilities and prisoners in correctional
facilities were given the right to vote. After years of battling for the
right to vote, we have lost sight of the associated duty that goes along
with this right, and that is the inherent responsibility to vote.
Voting is a positive duty owed by citizens to the rest of our society,
much like paying taxes, reporting for jury duty, wearing a seat belt or
attending school until the age of 16. These duties are reasonable limits
we put on our freedom to ensure the success of our society.
This obligation to vote must be accepted as one of the necessary duties
citizens carry out in order to maintain our system of democracy and the
benefits that goes with it. Other proposals for electoral reform, including
lowering the voting age, proportional representation or online e-voting
are all worthy of investigation, but they will not work alone.
We must change acquired attitudes and habits of Canadians when it comes
to voting. Few methods work better than legislation when it comes to modifying
behaviour for the common good. Seatbelt laws and drunk driving legislation
are excellent examples.
Despite the common perception that compulsory voting is rare, it has been
used with much success. In fact, thirty democracies around the world claim
to have compulsory voting, although a smaller number, sixteen democracies,
use it with the level of support and enforcement we are envisioning here
in Canada. These nations include Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium,
Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Fiji, Greece, Luxembourg, Peru, Nauru,
Singapore, Switzerland and Uruguay. Of these, the older and more developed
democracies, such as Australia, Belgium, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Greece and
Luxembourg, have maintained a serious commitment to the to institutionalize
the compulsory voting law.
Compulsory voting was introduced in Australia in 1924 by an appointed senator
by the name of Alfred Deakin. His private members bill was in response
to the declining voter turnout of 57.9 per cent in 1922. Now, Australia
has consistently boasted a turnout of over 90 per cent. Compulsory voting
in Belgium dates back to 1893. Currently, voter turnout in Belgium is over
90 per cent. The most recent election in the European Union revealed the
tremendous power of mandatory voting legislation and the pro-voting culture
it brings along. Member states with mandatory voting during the last European
Union elections had remarkable turnouts, with 90.8 per cent in Belgium,
89 per cent in Luxembourg, and 71 per cent in Cyprus, as compared with
countries with no compulsory voting, voter turnout was only 42.7 per cent
in France, 45.1 per cent in Spain and a mere 38.8 per cent in the United
These mandatory voting laws are not the hardship some might claim. Australians
do not feel coerced, in fact, polls in Australia show that 70 to 80 per
cent of Australians support the mandatory system.
There is little debate in Australia about whether compulsory voting infringes
on rights. Voting is simply seen as a relatively undemanding civic duty.
Finally, a mandatory voting law would demonstrate to individual Canadians
that the government believes voting is important and each vote has value.
Nothing is more basic, but we have come to a time in our history when it
must be re-emphasized.
The proposed legislation is designed to re-establish electoral participation
as a civic duty in our society in much the same way legislation mandating
jury duty or wearing a seatbelts has ensured that our judicial system functions
fairly and our personal safety is protected.
In fact, mandatory voting is not very well-named, since the only mandatory
provision in the bill is the obligation to go to a polling place. Once
the voter has received the ballot, he or she may mark the circle corresponding
to the name of a candidate or to the words none of the above, or simply
place an unmarked ballot in the ballot box. Those who want to express their
dissatisfaction with politicians or with the system by not voting will
do so much more clearly by cancelling their ballot or putting an X beside
none of the candidates. Protesting by staying home can be mistakenly
interpreted as being in favour of the status quo. A small fine is proposed
for those electors who do not go to vote. It will simply be used to recover
some of the expenses for the acquisition of supplies and facilities needed
to hold an election. Obviously, no fine would be levied against those with
a valid reason not to go to vote.
Studies show repeatedly that mandatory voting systems without a penalty
simply are not as effective as those with an even minor fee for non-voting.
This system does not have to be complicated. It will not cost a great deal
to administer. The Australian system has shown us that small fines are
sufficient to influence a change in voting patterns. In that country, if
you fail to show up on voting day, you will receive a form letter in the
mail requesting that you pay a fine of approximately AUS. $20 or provide
a reason such as travel, illness, religious objections, et cetera. This
takes care of about 95 per cent of the no-show cases. Only about 5 per
cent of those who do not show up to vote in Australia pay a fine.
In the various stages of preparation for this proposed legislation, I have
encountered some concern about the perceived contradiction with liberal
democratic principles. I have mentioned already many other examples of
mandatory tasks that we must carry out in this country. There is no denying
that we have rights and that we have the associated responsibilities to
go with them. We have the right to universal health care, and we have the
responsibility to pay taxes to pay for that service. We have a right to
a fair trial and we have a responsibility to serve on juries to protect
that right. We have a right to live in a democratic society and we have
the responsibility to vote to support the very foundation of that democracy.
Canadians will still have the right to abstain. As I explained, only registered
voters will be required to present themselves at the polling stations and,
once there, they have the option of selecting a candidate or choosing none
of the above. They can even drop a blank ballot into the box should they
choose to do so. The point is that all opinions matter and are counted,
whether they are in support of a specific candidate or a rejection of the
choices offered. If they are unable to vote, they need to only provide
a reasonable explanation and the matter is closed.
I have also been asked about the possibility of more spoiled ballots and
uninformed votes if mandatory voting were put in place. Spoiled ballots
and uninformed votes have and always will be part of our democratic system.
In the last federal election, about 120,000 rejected ballots were collected,
almost 1 per cent of the total vote.
Once again, let us refer to the Australian example where 4 per cent of
the Australian votes were rejected, not a significant number, given the
much larger percentage of valid ballots cast. Some argue that it does
not make sense to compel uninformed people to vote. Such exposure to the
voting system may actually help them to become more informed.
As one journalist pointed out, those same uninformed citizens are compelled
to serve on juries with potentially more serious consequences. Elections
Canada has worked diligently to inform and educate voters, and these efforts
will continue as an important element in a mandatory voting system.
Finally, mandatory voting would mean that voting will again become a civic
duty in Canada, but not a very demanding one. Thanks to safeguards to ensure
voter awareness, equality of access and the possibility of exercising ones
right to vote, the bill will establish not only our right, but also our
civic obligation to take part in the democratic process.