Leonid Sirota: As a way to express one's views about public affairs, a vote is remarkably ineffective
OPINION: Should New Zealand make voting compulsory, as Australia and a few other countries do?
Recently Radio New Zealand reported that former prime ministers Geoffrey Palmer, Mike Moore, and Jim Bolger think so, although active politicians of most partisan affiliations disagree and say that those entitled to vote should have the choice whether to do so. It is the current lot who are right.
Compulsory voting is often presented as the solution to democracy's ills, real or perceived. Yet there are no compelling arguments for, and some serious ones against it.
It is often said that voting is a civic duty, a basic requirement of citizenship. But why?
Assuming that citizens have a duty to care about public affairs (which is doubtful), voting is only one way among many to do so. One can discuss politics with one's friends; go to protests and meetings; write letters to the editor to condemn the politicians' misdeeds; or one can vote. Voting hardly contributes more to the community than any of the other things an active citizen might do. No one believes that we have a duty to write a prescribed number of letters to the editor in each electoral cycle. Is voting different?
To be sure, casting a ballot is not a significant imposition on most people, although it is on some, who might have to be excused under a compulsory voting rule.
But, as a means of expressing one's views about public affairs, a vote is also remarkably ineffective. There may be any number of reasons to support a candidate or a party. Politicians who think they know why voters elected them and claim a "mandate" are as often as not disappointed in their expectations of popular support for their policies.
And of course spoiling one's ballot, which is what supporters of compulsory voting think current abstainers ought to do, does not communicate very much either to one's fellow-citizens or to politicians either.
Advocates of compulsory voting frequently worry that low or declining voter turnouts threaten the legitimacy of our democratic system of government. This concern should not be especially acute in New Zealand. Just over three New Zealanders in four voted in 2014, which is a fairly high turnout rate in comparison with many other countries.
The United Kingdom, for example, has not come close to it since 1992; Canada, since the 1980s; the United States, in over a century. Switzerland, meanwhile, has not seen turnout above 50 per cent this century, and yet is still a democratic, not to mention prosperous and well-governed, country. In short, there is little reason to think that New Zealand's democracy needs saving by coercing people to vote.
Indeed, it is difficult to see how forcing disaffected citizens to the polls against their will can do much for the health of our democracy. When Statistics New Zealand questioned self-identified abstainers after the 2008 and 2011 elections, about half of those eligible to vote said that they were uninterested – because they did not think their vote mattered, did not trust the political process, or seemingly for no particular reason.
Others thought they did not know enough, either about the voting process itself or about the candidates and issues, despite such information being readily available.
Others still are not registered to vote, even though registration it is already obligatory, as well as easy.
Compulsory voting may well bring many of the current abstainers to the polls, but it cannot force them to develop an interest in politics and become better informed. That's because being uninterested in politics is rational. In our private lives, our own decisions matter a lot; we can identify their consequences, and thus know that we need to be make them carefully. Not so in politics, since any one voter's choice is virtually inconsequential, and even the results of change of government are often not straightforward to identify.
There is thus little reason, other than an interest in politics as a pastime, similar to an interest one might have in sport or music, to acquire information about politics or public policy, even if one intends or is obliged to vote.
In attempting to reach out to the least interested, and thus often the least knowledgeable, voters, politicians are likely to adopt campaign tactics and policies that could well harm democracy more than they would help it.
Instead of a more deliberative and inclusive political climate, they would foster a more populist one, in which sloganeering and simplistic appeals would be even more important than they already are. The supporters of compulsory voting should be careful what they wish for. The rest of us should hope that they don't get it.
Leonid Sirota is a lecturer in constitutional law at the AUT Law School.
- The Dominion Post