Eesti Elu
Is compulsory voting a solution for low voter turnout? (1)
Eestlased Kanadas 14 Feb 2015  Eesti Elu
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Laas Leivat
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In a study of 151 elections in 61 democratic countries since 1990 voter turnout is a dozen percentage points higher in countries where voting is compulsory provided there is a penalty for failing to vote.

Voter participation in the 2011 parliamentary elections in Estonia was 63.%% of eligible voters. In the 2014 European Parliament elections it was 36.52%.

While voter turnout in Estonia at first glance seems to be low, it’s not much different from other European countries (and Canada). Estonia has ranked consistently high in any measure of aspects of democracy and its development in formerly Soviet occupied countries. At the same time international observers have often suggested that Estonia could do better in citizen participation in the political process.

It’s been observed that many Estonians still view with disdain or distrust the political process, speak of politicians and the legislative process with abject cynicism and dismiss the electoral process as an exercise in futility. Some say this is a legacy of the opaque and fraudulent one-party political system of the Soviet era.

(It’s been noted that Estonians living abroad have a distinctly different attitude towards politics and politicians from that which seems to prevail in Estonia. 76,466 Estonians living abroad are allowed to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections. This is 26,838 more than four years ago. But many predict that the participation rate will not be anywhere close to that of those voting in Estonia.)

Some have suggested that compulsory voting will rectify voter apathy. In some countries where voting is considered a duty, voting is regulated in constitutions and electoral laws. Some countries even impose penalties on non-voters. Compulsory voting proponents insist that a democratically elected government gains more legitimacy if voter turnout is high and that voting has an educational effect on citizens. If democracy is government by the people, then every citizen has an obligation to choose his/her representative. Currently there are some 32 countries with some form of compulsory voting and research has shown that this helps increase voting by 7-16% in national elections.

Opponents of compulsory voting says that it violates the freedoms associated with democracy. They consider voting not to be an intrinsic responsibility and a threat of penalty would infringe on the freedoms associated with democratic elections. It may detract from political education because people forced to participate may react against perceived oppression. It’s difficult to prove that governments strengthen their legitimacy with higher voter turn out. It’s been established that spoiled ballots increase in some countries with the advent of mandatory voting.

Both the pro and con arguments of compulsory voting seem reasonable. But voting and political participation as imbued cultural imperatives are not solidly entrenched even in some centuries old democracies. Estonians, whose national sovereignty still remains as a prevailing issue, simply must see voting as the most effective form of participation in a representative democracy.

But compulsory voting, is it the answer for Estonia? There are several reasonable arguments supporting it: Voting is a civic duty, similar to other duties such as taxation, mandatory education, jury duty etc. An elected parliament will reflect more accurately the `will of the people`. Governments should consider the total electorate, including those not voting, in forming policy. Candidates can concentrate more on issues than getting out the vote. The voter isn`t so much influenced to vote for anyone because voting is by secret ballot.

At the same time there are several compelling reasons for not adopting compulsory voting as the answer to boosting participation: Compulsory voting is undemocratic in that it forces people to vote making it in infringement on liberty. Those with little interest and those without any knowledge of the issues are forced to the polls. It usually increases the number of spoiled ballots. It increases the number of safe, single member electorates making political parties pay more attention to the fringe electorates. Determinations must be made such as which non-voter pays the penalties and which has a legitimate reason for failing to vote – allocating costly resources to establish this.

One can then easily argue that for Estonia, valuing freedom in all its forms, compulsory voting is not the answer. Estonians cannot be ‘forced’
to vote. They will do it as a right to be handled each in his/her own personal way. Voting takes place in Toronto at Estonian House on Wednesday, February 18 and Thursday, February 19, from 11:00 am to 8:00 pm. In Ottawa at the Estonian Embassy on Saturday February 14, from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm and on Saturday, February 17, from 12:00 am to 7:00 pm.
Laas Leivat
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