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Compulsory voting and same-sex marriage referendums

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.

Alexandru Volacu

Alexandru Volacu is an Associate Professor at the University of Bucharest and Director of the Bucharest Center for Political Theory. His research interests mainly revolve around several topics: the ethics of voting, theories of justice, and the ideal/non-ideal theory debate.



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  1. Wouter Peeters

    Hi Alexandru,

    Thanks for this post, I enjoyed reading it and made me take some time to think about this topic. I am originally from Belgium, where there is indeed compulsory voting, although it is increasingly under pressure (mainly by libertarian arguments in right-wing political parties). In theory you can get fined for not voting, but this has not been enforced for some decades now. If people want to abstain while obeying the law, they can vote “blanco”.

    Your post led me to the following two questions, and I would like to see what you think about this.

    1. I know that same-sex marriage has been the subject of a number of referenda, and in Ireland in 2015, 62% voted to permit marriage between adults without distinction as to their sex (on a 62% turnout). However, I would actually think that if a prohibition of same-sex marriage is unjust, then it should not be subjected to a referendum. And this view would be perfectly democratic, because democratic values include equality, anti-discrimination and protection of minority interests. If this is the case, then it is not a matter of political ideology and should not depend on a referendum.

    2. Compulsory voting has indeed been defended on the basis that it would provide a much better reflection of the population. However, there are other arguments, and I think the following might be more attractive (albeit more controversial): voting is not a right, but a duty! And if the duty is sufficiently important, everyone should abide by it and we would have a legitimation for enforcing it. Compare it with traffic: in order to participate in traffic (which everyone does), people have to abide by rules, and these are enforced in order to safeguard everyone’s bodily integrity. Why wouldn’t we believe that voting is similarly something that everyone has to do because they are all a member of the polis?

    3. Would there be a difference between referenda and general elections? Can we have mandatory voting in general elections, while not making it mandatory in referenda?


    • Alexandru Volacu

      Hi Wouter,

      Thanks a lot for the comment. I definitely agree with (1). When the Romanian referendum on prohibiting same-sex marriage in the constitution was being debated a lot of us advocated for exactly this point. It seems to me that it’s not only unjust in the way in which, for instance, some libertarian economic policies would be, I think, unjust, but that it’s a matter of fundamental rights which should be constitutionally protected and not susceptible to alterations. Art. 152 of the Romanian constitution, for instance, specifically says that “no revision can be done if it results in suppressing the fundamental rights or liberties of citizens”.

      On (2), that is the avenue which defenders of compulsory voting take, but in order to pursue it you would need to explain why we have a duty to vote. My position, which I’ve sketched for one class of arguments here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1065912919839155 (but I think it can apply much more generally), is that any plausible argument in favor of a duty to vote cannot simply be a duty to cast a ballot, but rather it is a duty to vote well (where this can mean a variety of things depending on what the values grounding the duty are supposed to be). And compulsory voting isn’t really able to do any of the work required to enforce a duty to vote well, as it only compels us to show up and vote.

      I’ll answer (3) as a reply to Pierre’s comment below.

      • Wouter Peeters

        Hi Alexandru,

        Thanks for your response! (2) was indeed based on my own underdeveloped intuition, since this is somewhat outside my main area of expertise. So thanks for providing a link to your article, I’ll definitely look into it!

        Meanwhile, the Flemish Regional Government has been installed and in their programme, they have stated the intention to revoke compulsory voting in the next local election (while this wasn’t, as far as I know, stated in any of the platforms of these parties before the elections). There hasn’t really been a debate about this (again, as far as I am aware), and while I’m interested in your argument against compulsory voting, my gut feeling at this moment is that I don’t like to give this up (even though I can’t even vote in local Belgian elections because my residence is in the UK!). But as I said: it’s an intuition, I should do some studying on the topic!

  2. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Hi Alexandru,

    Thanks for the interesting post. It brought back to my mind an argument by Ben Saunders (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-9256.2009.01368.x) suggesting that being free to abstain (especially in referendums) was important to make sure voting results were “made by the relevant constituency, with those most affected getting more say”. And it might not be enough to offer the possibility of a blank ballot because mandatory voting incentivizes uninformed voting by non-hihgly affected people.

    Nevertheless, I agree with Wouter: your case against compulsory voting seems to apply more to referendums than general elections. One could claim that all citizens should have an opinion on the best representatives but need not have an opinion on all policies submitted to referendum.

    • Alexandru Volacu

      Hi Pierre,

      Thanks a lot for this comment as well. Yes, I think Ben has made several excellent points against compulsory voting in that article and this one: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9248.2011.00914.x.

      I agree with what you and Wouter are saying. In this article I definitely only want to make the narrower case that compulsory voting may be problematic only for referendums. But I think that whether or not we can normatively separate referendums from elections ultimately hinges on why we believe compulsory voting should be introduced to begin with. It seems to me that the current salient justifications (CV leads to more egalitarian outcomes because it effectively causes disadvantaged groups to vote more, CV enhances democratic legitimacy or is democratically required, CV prevents free-riding by non-voters on voters, CV enhances liberty in some interpretation – republican or positive) would have a tough time to support such a separation.

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