The case against compulsory voting

Together with a handful of countries including Belgium and Brazil, Luxembourg has laws on the books that make participating in parliamentary elections mandatory. Luxembourgish citizens, before they vote on 14 October, will receive a convocation de vote, or a ‘call to vote’, which explains to them that all citizens who did not already vote via correspondence and who are not above the age of 75 are required to show up on Sunday morning to cast their ballot.

At least, that’s what it says on paper. In reality, the law hasn’t been enforced for decades. A Luxembourger who doesn’t show up to vote on 14 October will not be punished. Most Luxembourgers probably know this, yet the ‘compulsory’ vote has managed to draw almost all registered voters to the polls for years.

But why would a country put in place mandatory voting in the first place? The argument seems to be that a democratic system, to be viable, depends on the participation of its citizens. Low voter turnout is often considered to be a delegitimisation of the political system.

But, so what?

The system Western European countries have largely observed for decades has not simply been one of democracy but rather of ‘liberal democracy’. The parliament of the People’s Republic of China, for example, votes democratically, yet few would consider the system to be free. In a liberal democracy, voters’ trust in the State’s direction is founded on the individual and his or her free will, and that should include participating – or not participating – in anything that individual is not contractually bound to do in the first place. How else are voters who are unhappy with the political system supposed to express their views?

To those in power, high turnout – whether voters cast blank ballots or vote in complete opposition to the political establishment – shows that “we’re doing fine”. The more people participating in the vote, the more legitimate it becomes.

But people who have lost faith in the system should be able to opt out. If the system excites voters because they feel involved, then they can choose to participate voluntarily. Take the example of Switzerland – despite the absence of mandatory voting, the Federal Statistics Office found in 2016 that, over the last 20 votes, 90% of eligible voters participated in at least one decision. The office also found that voters were selective, meaning they actively chose which referenda to participate in according to their interests.

Compare that with Luxembourg, where parents must drag youngsters to the polls because A) “it’s mandatory” or B) “it’s a citizen’s duty”. That’s not setting a good example, that’s just setting an imperative. If you’re forced to do something, either legally or morally, you’re likely to ask for a good reason.

And lastly, the argument that the World War II generation “fought for our right to vote” is a tedious one. It is inaccurate to say the Luxembourgers of the 1930s and ’40s fought for the right to vote. They did not fight for the right to vote. They fought for freedom.

The important counter-argument against the Nazi regime wasn’t that it was ‘undemocratic’ – even until very recently, in the 20th century, people were living ‘peacefully’ in undemocratic states. The counter-argument is that the Nazis violated the core principles of human rights and dignity. To claim that Luxembourgers fought in the Resistance to make it mandatory for young people to vote in 2018 is to exploit our ancestors’ hopes and aspirations for a political purpose. They fought for freedom, and freedom means the ability to make choices – even if others disagree with them.

This article was first published by the Luxembourg Times.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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