Would You Vote if $25 Was on the Line?

04/26/2012 03:38 EDT | Updated 06/26/2012 05:12 EDT

On the eve of the presidential elections in France, commentators were saying there is so much apathy in the French population, the old leader of democracy in Europe, that only 40 per cent of eligible voters were expected to exercise that sacred right last Sunday.

And yet this apathy is by no means confined to France. Here in Canada, voter turnout at the federal level has been declining since the late 1980s and is now just over 60 per cent.

The rate also varies according to age groups and social class and perhaps other factors. In Canada, voter turnout for those under 25 years is around 25 per cent only, a factoid which is easy to remember! Average voter turnout is much worse in lower income ridings (45 per cent) versus wealthier ridings (62 per cent).

What this means is clearly that voluntary voting further disadvantages the already disadvantaged and disempowered segments of society. Right-wing governments would love to leave the status quo undisturbed. But all incumbent governments of any colour would oppose any new system, including proportional representation, if it could threaten their hold on power.

Now let us look at the alternative. Mandatory voting is already in effect, in more than 30 countries, such as Australia, Belgium and Switzerland. Not surprisingly, Australia routinely garners voter participation rates of 95 per cent. Most other countries can only dream about such figures. So, how does Australia do it, considering there are so many similarities and shared values with Canada?

Is it conceivable that a fine of $25 is such a significant threat that it can produce such wonderful results? I wouldn't have thought so; however, once the population becomes used to the idea, I believe that it takes a life of its own. It would be interesting to find out how many people actually incur the fine, which would amount to the price of three beers at the pub, once every four or five years!

There are those who would object to mandatory voting -- on the principle of allowing people a free choice -- who would say "you can take the horse to the water, but you cannot make it drink." On the other hand, there are good reasons to enforce voting. Having the right to vote is only meaningful if you use it.

It can also be argued that citizenship means you have a duty to fulfill; and that this is the price for living in a prosperous democratic society, such as paying your taxes. We have also heard some say that mandatory voting may not change the outcome. Of course it may not; but the surest way to remain in the current mess is to keep the current flawed and skewed system. Besides we already have ample evidence from the Australian experience that it can make a difference -- a huge difference, in fact.

Perhaps the most outrageous objection I have so far read is one published in the Globe and Mail stating, without a shred of evidence, that "Canadians are less tolerant of state intrusion than people in Australia."

There is a lot that governments can do to make voting more attractive, in addition to public education, such as:

1. Select a day when the weather in that country is not extreme. This is already followed in Canada, where voting in winter is avoided.

2. Declare that day a public holiday, so that there is no excuse about missing work, which may be a huge disincentive for the poor.

3. Make all bus/train rides free on that day.

4. Instead of the $25 "stick," give a "carrot" of a tax credit of $50 or $100 to those who do vote.

5. In today's social media world, allow electronic voting, which has already been used numerous times for the young and those who wish to use it. At the same time, permit the standard ballot marking for the elderly, and anyone else who is intimidated by the computer.

Some skeptic is going to ask "and who is going to pay for those extra expenses?" The answer is not difficult at all: buy one less F35 fighter jet, poised to defend us against Iceland! Who needs them, anyway?


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