Does Canada need mandatory voting laws?

Political power remains in the hands of those who have an easier time voting – older, white, educated Canadians with money

After promising that 2015 would be the last election conducted under the first-past-the-post system, a major plank of Justin Trudeau’s campaign, the Liberal government is facing harsh criticism over its response to a committee’s findings on electoral reform. Instead of introducing legislation, the feds have launched an online survey asking Canadians “to join the national conversation on electoral reform.”

The Trudeau cabinet is reportedly not as gung-ho as the Prime Minister on reform. But one important question has been so far missing from the debate: does Canada need mandatory voting laws? 

Canada has chronically low voter turnout when it comes to elections. In 2011, Stephen Harper won a majority government with 61 per cent turnout. Trudeau’s 2015 victory saw a slight uptick to 68 per cent. We celebrated because this marked a two-decade high, but it still meant that almost a third of Canadians didn’t vote. 

Research shows that voting is socially and racially biased in Canada. People who have difficulty voting are the very groups whose interests are underrepresented: mainly, Indigenous peoples, youth, new citizens, the unemployed and underemployed, the homeless, and the poor.

As a result, political power remains in the hands of those who have an easier time voting. These Canadians are usually older, white, educated, and have more money. 

Statscan recently determined that age matters the most for Canadians when it comes to electoral turnout. In 2011, 50 per cent of Canadians aged 18-24 voted. Compare this with 82 per cent of people in their early 60s and 70s.

Government and its policies are skewed towards the interests of older voters.

This makes younger voters apathetic and helps perpetuate a cycle where few care about government, let alone show up to vote. The recent Brexit vote made the divisions between older and younger voters painfully clear, as younger Brits opted to stay in the European Union, while seniors voted to leave. 

Australia has had mandatory voting laws for all eligible citizens over 18 since 1924. These laws sound a lot more coercive than they actually are. 

Instead, on federal election days, all registered voters are required to appear at a polling station. Once there, voters can do whatever they want with their ballot, including spoil it, submit a blank ballot, or vote for “none of the above.” The government follows up with those who didn’t vote by sending a form in the mail that requests a reason for the absence. There are no guidelines for what’s considered “reasonable,” which helps accommodate a variety of circumstances. Exemptions for illness, disability, and religious practice are common. For everyone else, the government issues a fine, usually around $20. 

These laws have forced the Australian government to make voting easier and more accessible. Now, the overwhelming majority of Australians vote, while only about five per cent of registered voters pay a fine. Overall, a majority of Australians, between 70 and 80 per cent, support the system. Australian political scientists suggest that these laws help generate higher levels of government satisfaction among citizens. Argentina, Brazil, Cyprus, Ecuador, Luxembourg, Malaysia and Liechtenstein also have mandatory voting laws.

Some policy analysts suggest we need something similar in Canada. If the thought of fining someone sounds too harsh, Robert Asselin, a former Trudeau senior policy adviser, suggested in 2013 that what’s more important is getting Canadians engaged in the political process. 

There’s a clamoring for change among disillusioned voters in the western world that far-right candidates like Donald Trump and Kellie Leitch have started to manipulate. 

But does this demand for change reflect the values of a majority of Canadians? A parliament elected with mandatory voting laws would more accurately reflect the interests of all Canadians. In 2010, EKOS polling noted that if young Canadians voted, the Green Party and NDP would have substantially greater representation in Parliament. 

Opponents dislike mandatory voting for several key reasons. Some maintain that it turns voting into a civic duty, like paying taxes, rather than a right enshrined and protected in the Charter. Others say that mandatory voting is inherently undemocratic because it denies people the right to choose if they want to vote. 

Finally, opponents suggest that mandatory voting laws don’t get at the heart of Canada’s political problems. It would not guarantee increased awareness or education of the issues. And they argue that such laws put the onus on individual voters to vote, rather than politicians to inspire us to want to vote and work to make a more representative political system. 

There’s a lot of truth to this last point. But it’s also difficult to imagine the day when politicians will make it a priority to inspire marginalized voters. 

Many Canadians support electoral reform. Proportional representation, greater accessibility to polling stations, longer voting periods, and more engaged and inspiring politicians would strengthen voter turnout.

But even proportional representation, only goes so far if younger Canadians still aren’t voting. 

Melissa J. Gismondi is a Canadian Ph.D. candidate in U.S. political history at the University of Virginia. | @nowtoronto

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