Compulsory voting

Compulsory voting is an effect of laws which require eligible citizens to register and vote in elections, and may impose penalties on those who fail to do so. As of August 2013, 22 countries provided for compulsory voting, and 11 of them — about 5% of all United Nations members — enforced it.[1]

One country[2] has introduced compulsory voting during the first two decades of the 21st century, while three[3] have abolished it during that same period.

History

Antiquity

Athenian democracy held that it was every citizen's duty to participate in decision making, but attendance at the assembly was voluntary. Sometimes there was some form of social opprobrium to those not participating. For example, Aristophanes's comedy Acharnians 17–22, in the 5th century BC, shows public slaves herding citizens from the agora into the assembly meeting place (Pnyx) with a red-stained rope. Those with red on their clothes were fined.[4] This usually happened if fewer than 6,000 people were in attendance, and more were needed for the assembly to continue.[5]

Modern era

From the 19th century onward, only a relatively small number of democracies have introduced compulsory voting at one time or another, and the number has tended to decline with time. Of the first 35 of the 167 countries listed in descending order on EIU's Democracy Index for 2019, Australia (No. 9), Luxemburg (No. 12), Uruguay (No. 15), Costa Rica[6] (No. 19), and Belgium (No. 33) are the only nations having compulsory voting.

Belgium has the oldest existing compulsory voting system. Compulsory voting was introduced in 1893 for men[7] and in 1948 for women, following universal female suffrage.[8] Belgians aged 18 and over and registered non-Belgian voters are obliged to present themselves in their polling station; while they don't have to cast a vote, those who fail to present themselves (without proper justification, or having appointed a proxy) at their polling station on election Sunday can face prosecution and a moderate fine. If they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years. Non-voters also might face difficulties getting a job in the public sector.[9] In practice fines are no longer issued for non-voters (7.4% of all voters did not vote at the 2018 local elections) but fines will be levied upon those chosen to invigilate at the polling stations.[10]

Compulsory voting for national elections was introduced in Australia in 1924, following a pronounced fall in turnout at the 1922 federal election. Compulsory enrolment had already been introduced in 1911. Voting is also compulsory at state level, having been introduced in Queensland in 1915, Victoria in 1926, New South Wales and Tasmania in 1928, Western Australia in 1936, and South Australia in 1942. However, until 1984 Indigenous Australians were exempt from the compulsory voting provisions.[11]