Mandatory Voting: Improving democratic legitimacy

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Credit: Maclean's

As part of For Our Future’s pursuit of greater democratic accountability, we see civic disengagement and disaffection as a threat to stability, legitimacy, and cooperation within our democracy. We are calling for mandatory voting to be a part of a broader policy plan to address these issues.

Civic Disengagement

There has been a general sentiment that Canadians are becoming increasingly disaffected in the form of political polarization and disengagement in politics, particularly youth. Civic disengagement manifested in lower voter turnout not only is a concrete example of disaffection but threatens the legitimacy of our elections and separates political parties’ agendas from Canadians’ interests.

In the 20th century in federal elections, voter turnout averaged close to 76 percent with voter turnout being 74 percent in the second of that century. Since 2000, voter turnout has dropped more than 10 percent to less than 64 percent. Turnout is lower in provincial elections, sometimes dropping below 50 percent. The federal trend and incidents of below 50 percent turnout should be sobering if we are serious about strengthening and enhancing our democracy.

A Case For and Against Mandatory Voting

Mandatory voting is a mechanism to resolve these issues at least in part through elevating civic responsibility, increasing government legitimacy, and forcing parties to focus on Canadian interests, not simply targeting their own voters. It could enable Canada’s turnout to surge from 64 percent to above 90 percent if a pragmatic policy design is instituted.

A foundation of democracy is that citizens voice their interests through their most basic democratic right - voting. Mandatory voting would increase the representativeness of elections. This would discourage political parties from focusing on ‘getting out the vote’ and instead on creating and communicating policies that represent the needs of Canadians. While some argue that mandatory voting would force those who are uninformed and disengaged into voting for a party without much thought, For Our Future deems this a cynical and undemocratic proposal. Mandatory voting incentives engagement and we believe that every individual vote with their interests in mind.

Additional criticisms of mandatory voting include taking away people’s right not to vote, it compels people to vote for a party, and it reduces the legitimacy of voting if it is a forced action. Yet through creating a reasonable burden and flexible exemptions, constitutional challenges are unlikely to succeed. Compelled votes are a weak rebuttal as anyone can spoil a ballot or if they have a good reason, could receive an exemption.

A Comprehensive Proposal

The successful implementation of mandatory voting requires three elements: enforcing a low, but not inconsequential penalty for not voting; permit absences and exemptions with soft enforcement to prevent a coercive culture, and positive incentives to maximize voting turnout.

Mandatory voting in Canada should translate into the enforcement of voting for everyone that is legally allowed to vote including those in and living outside of Canada. The penalty for not voting should consist of a fine that is found to produce a reasonable burden on someone to vote. In Australia, this penalty is a $20 fine. In the Canadian context, the fine would likely be within a range that is close to this dollar value.

While a fine is a negative incentive for not voting, some argue that a positive incentive, in the form of a $20 tax break, for example, would be more effective. Loss aversion, the psychological effect that causes individuals to perceive an equal loss (losing $20) as worse than an equal gain (gaining $20), suggests that a fine is a more effective use of an equally costly (in dollar-value) incentive. Simply put, the government may have to provide a tax break of $25 or $30 to provide the same incentive to vote as a $20 fine has.

Imposing strict penalties on the public may produce an ill-advised coercive relationship between the government and the public. Instead, there should be acceptable reasons for absence and exemptions that can be submitted if one cannot vote. Reasonable absences include being ill, both temporary and chronic, and being unable to access a polling station. Although the second absence should be another issue that governments work to address.

Exemptions that are permissible include religious exemptions and conscientious ones. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in voting and some indigenous peoples reject Canadian governments as legitimate and thus do not vote. Even with rules in place, there needs to be a balance between strict enforcement of mandatory voting and creating a coercive culture.

Lastly, there should be non-financial positive incentives for voting. These manifest in two ways, structural and cultural. Structurally, election day needs to occur on a non-working day to allow everyone, particularly those who cannot afford to take time from work to vote. For Our Future calls for a statutory holiday for elections on a Wednesday to avoid people utilizing it for non-election matters. More can be read about this here. Alternatively, holding elections on a weekend could produce a similar effect.

Culturally, like Australia, creating a positive environment for voting that includes activities, and food and beverages would transform voting into a community event and not solely a civic duty. Governments could incentive this cultural phenomenon to occur by providing permits to local businesses to sell food and beverages and facilitate community activities.

Bipartisan Support

To accomplish this reform, we should seek bipartisan support. Regardless of party, everyone should be in favour of maximizing democratic participation and transforming voting into a cultural tradition. This will preserve our democratic norms and improve legitimacy.  


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