Recently, liberal senator Mac Harb was in Winnipeg promoting the idea of mandatory voting in a speech for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. In Senator Harb’s opinion, mandatory voting reduces the power of special interest groups, ensures that concerns of minority groups are addressed, and restores public trust in the political system. While I’m sympathetic to any
change to our electoral system, I really question whether making voting mandatory would restore public trust in the political system. The fact is that people don’t vote precisely because they have no faith in the political system – either there is no candidate that they feel they can vote for, or
if they do vote, they vote for the “lesser of three evils” leaving them, again, distrustful of the political system.
Is mandatory voting in the interest of democracy or in the interest of political parties (democracy and politics are not synonymous)? As one astute observer noted, for any political party that gets at least 2% of the vote, they get $1.75 for every vote received. This significantly increases the amount of public monies going into political parties including the mainstream parties (Liberals, Conservatives and NDP). Does that, however, mean that democracy is being served? On the other hand, forcing people who don’t want to vote to do so, does not mean that they are, necessarily, informed voters. Voters may spoil their ballots or vote for fringe parties just to make a statement. There’s nothing wrong with that, but does that advance the state of democracy in Canada?
While I agree with Senator Harb’s that only 22% of youth bothered to vote in the last election which is not good for democracy, I feel that mandatory voting is only one of many steps needing to be taken to changing our electoral system in order to get youth voting and to improve democracy. One suggestion that I have suggested before is that they lower the voting age from 18 to 16. Another option is to have “None of the above” as an option on the ballot for those who don’t feel that they can vote for any of the candidates. If more than 50% plus 1 vote for “none of the above”, then there would be no elected person – be it civil, provincial or federal. Or, as others have suggested, have a blank space on the ballot which allows for voters to write in who they would like to vote for.
On the other hand, I also tend to agree with Winnipeg Sun columnist Tom Brodbeck who suggests that as part of reforming the political electoral system that “recalls” and referendums should also be part of a reform package. Recall of politicians would likely require that a petition be
signed by 15% of eligible voters that would result in the removal of the elected politician and the need for a new election. Referendums, on the other hand, provide the opportunity for voters to have a say on public policy issues by putting policy statements on the ballot.
Insofar as Senator Harb is concerned, it seems to me that he misses the point of enforcement. In Australia, those who don’t vote are fined $25.00. I suspect that in Canada, voters would ignore this fine making mandatory voting unenforceable. If we want voters in Canada to realize that they not only have the right to vote, but the civic responsibility to do so, we must provide a positive, comprehensive model of reform that includes aspects of all of the above.
Nick Ternette is a community and political activist, freelance writer and