Electoral turnout is declining. In the past three decades, the average turnout for legislative elections has registered a sharp drop, of about 10% at the global level, a drop which spans across all continents and among both established and emerging democracies. If we find this trend to be concerning, there is one fairly simple mechanism that we could employ in order to reverse it: compulsory voting. In this post I argue that while it might be attractive at first sight, compulsory voting is, however, sometimes inimical to justice, drawing on the recent cases of same-sex marriage referendums held in several Eastern European countries.
The usage of compulsory voting is not particularly widespread in contemporary politics. As of 2019, less than 30 countries worldwide maintain this policy (which is most popular in Latin America), but not even all of these actually enforce existing sanctions for unjustified electoral abstention. Still, compulsory voting has been systematically shown to effectively raise electoral turnout, with countries such as Australia or Belgium – which both use this policy and enforce sanctions – consistently displaying turnout rates that stand at around 90%. For this reason, leading political figures such as Barrack Obama or Geoff Hoon have at times gestured favourably towards this policy and, in some European countries, efforts have recently been undertaken for its introduction. In Bulgaria, for instance, a compulsory voting law was passed in 2016 with a substantial majority by the National Assembly, but then abolished by the Constitutional Court in the following year, and in Romania a bill mandating compulsory voting has been pending approval in Parliament for more than five years.
Compulsory voting has been defended on several grounds, but the most popular argument for its introduction has been first advanced roughly twenty years ago by political scientist Arend Lijphart. This argument provides a justice-based reason for compulsory voting, which can be synthesized as follows: when turnout is low, the distribution of voters does not properly reflect the demographic composition of society, as it systematically favours some socio-economic groups over others. In particular, ample empirical evidence shows that the groups who vote less under voluntary electoral systems tend to be poorer and less educated than those who vote at higher rates. Thus, the systematic disadvantage which these groups already experience will be compounded under such systems, since public policies presumably track the interests of voters and ignore those of non-voters. If we are egalitarians and truly concerned with improving the situation of the socio-economically disadvantaged, the argument goes, we should therefore favour compulsory voting. Annabelle Lever and I have discussed a number of objections to this argument in a recent work, but I set them aside here. Rather, the salient question for this post is whether justice-based reasons necessarily support compulsory voting, and I think that same-sex marriage referendums provide an interesting case study in this regard.
Attitudes towards same-sex marriage have known significant fluctuations in some parts of the world as per the last couple of decades. In the United States, for instance, polls have shown a remarkable shift between 2004 and 2019, with a 30% increase in favourability (from 31% to 61%) and a similar decrease in unfavourability (from 60% to 31%). In Europe, unfortunately, there is still a sharp divide in both attitudes towards same-sex marriage and the legalization of this institution, with Eastern European countries especially placing themselves largely in opposition. It is highly plausible, however, that in the relatively near future, attitudes towards same-sex marriage will register important shifts in this region as well. By and large, this has prompted its opponents in some of these countries, usually grouped under umbrella alliances of NGOs that contain the key term “family” (e.g. “On Behalf of the Family” in Croatia, “Alliance for the Family” in Slovakia, and “Coalition for the Family” in Romania), to demand the constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage (with referendums organized on this issue in Croatia in 2013, in Slovakia in 2015, and in Romania in 2018). On the one hand, such a prohibition would have had the instrumental effect of blocking the possibility of same-sex marriage legalization through ordinary legislation, requiring a more difficult revision of the constitution when public attitudes would be more favourable to the practice. On the other one, it would have had the symbolic effect of instituting a ban on same-sex marriage stipulated as part of the fundamental social contract.
Though in all three cases the referendum result clearly favoured opposition to same-sex marriage, the Slovakian and Romanian ones ultimately failed as in both cases the minimum threshold required for referendum validation (50% in the former case and 30% in the latter one) was not met, with the final turnout only slightly above 21% in both. In both the Slovakian and the Romanian case, the referendums resulted in more than 90% of the votes being cast in favour of the ban, a percentage which is, however, in part due to the strategy deployed by opponents to the ban, which consisted in boycotting the referendum rather than voting against.
The argument is, I think, fairly straightword. If we believe, as implied by any plausible theory of justice, that institutional discrimination against same-sex couples through the prohibition of same-sex marriage is profoundly unjust, compulsory voting will render any boycotting strategy effectively untenable, thereby making it more likely that the unjust political outcome will arise. Moreover, if we think that in referendums of this kind we actually have a moral duty to abstain, because this is the course of action that most effectively contributes to the preclusion of unjust outcomes, compulsory voting would not only lack any solid ethical foundation – as it would not be able to enforce any moral duties which we might have – but it would actually coerce individuals to violate their moral duties, an implication which is deeply problematic for this policy.