The Right to Vote: Should it be a freedom or an obligation?

This year heralds two important political elections in both the United States and Brazil. Both countries pride themselves on conducting elections according to the democratic political process. But in hindsight, just what is the significance of the right to vote in a political election? On the one hand, the US operates under a non-compulsory voting process while on the other, Brazil operates completely under a compulsory voting process. Notwithstanding, there are political, religious, class, monetary, racial and philosophical arguments that support and contradict each system. But before we can begin to understand the complexity of this issue it is necessary to sketch some important points.

In the days of ancient Greece, democracy held that all citizens had the right to participate in decision making but attendance at the gathering of the assembly was voluntary. Sometimes, however, there was some sort of social “penalty” for those that did not attend the meeting. Many centuries later, the term “suffrage” (…seems like a strange term to be associated with something beneficial, that is to say who exactly was doing the suffering?) became associated with the right to vote. Now, at that time, suffrage came in two basic forms – the active right to vote and the passive right to vote. The active right to vote meant that the individual could vote for a particularly candidate. While the passive right to vote meant that a candidate could be voted for in an election. Now, suffrage applies to both initiative and referendum – that is, some practical questions could be voted on by citizens while others were unilaterally decided upon by elected and appointed representatives. Now, there are numerous different types of suffrage. But it is not the objective of this writing to give a lesson on political suffrage. Suffice it to say that there is: universal s suffrage, equal suffrage, census suffrage, compulsory suffrage; forms of exclusions from suffrage: religious, wealth, tax class, and social class, knowledge, race, age, criminality, residency, nationality, naturalization, and function. What is important here is the arguments for and against non-compulsory and compulsory voting.

It is claimed that compulsory voting ensures a larger voter turnout. Of course, the implication is that a winning candidate clearly represents a majority of the population and not just motivated individuals that would have voted without any sort of compulsion. Also, it is believed that compulsory voting prevents interference from external factors such as weather, transport or restrictive employers. But more important, it ensures that the socially disadvantaged are not disenfranchised. That is to say, if everyone is required to vote then steps must be taken to remove any obstacles. Voting on Saturdays or Sundays, for example, ensures that working people can fulfill their obligation to vote. If in the event voters do not want to vote, they simple cast a blank or spoilt ballot. Actually, research by political scientist Arend Lijpart states that compulsory voting increases voting 7-16% in national elections. Also, he points out that there exist many other compulsory duties in democratic societies such as paying taxes, attending school, military conscription and even compulsory jury duty that are more
time consuming than voting.

On the other hand, the argument against compulsory voting says that it violates one of the most basic of democratic rights – the right to freedom of speech. Legal scholars in the US affirm that compulsory voting is a form of compelled speech that violates this right because the right to speech includes the right to not speak as well. Also, it is believed that compulsory voting violates another basic tenet of democracy – the freedom of religion. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not participate in political processes because of their religious beliefs. If they are compelled to vote due to compulsory voting laws, then they are in violation of their own faith’s practices.
However, it should be mentioned that in some countries Jehovah’s Witnesses are excused from compulsory voting for this reason. Further, compulsory voting is accused of being responsible for the “donkey-vote” or people that have no preference for candidates but simply vote because they are required to vote. Research shows that this practice accounts for 1-2% of votes in these systems.

Finally, it should be noted that there are 23 countries in the world that practice compulsory voting, 10 of which enforce these laws stringently. The other 13 countries require compulsory voting but do not strictly enforce it. In Brazil, for example, if a person doesn’t vote, they are required to provide a reason; if they do not provide a reason after a certain period of time they are fined; if they fail to pay the fine, then they are prohibited from obtaining civil service or government employment, denied application for a passport or in some cases prohibited from traveling abroad. In Bolivia, a citizen may be denied withdrawal of their salary from the bank for three months for
failing to cast a vote; and in Turkey citizens are fined directly for not voting. The burning question to consider is should governments force it’s citizens to vote or penalize them for not voting and if so, is that really democracy or some hybrid form of it? Perhaps, the right to vote is really just an expression of a citizen’s political will but then again, perhaps its just the satisfaction of the will of a particular political
establishment.


The Right to Vote: Should it be a freedom or an obligation? Part 2

In the past month, Brazil conducted mayoral elections in fifty of the eighty-five major metropolitan cities – compulsory voting and always on Sundays. In about a week, Americans will go to the polls to elect the president of the United States non-compulsory voting and always on Tuesdays. Today, here in Salvador, voters are gathering again to go to the polls for a second mayoral election. You see, when a candidate does not win an election in Brazil by at least a fifty-one percent margin, another run-off election must be held and usually within thirty days of the first election. This is true for both federal and state elections as demonstrated by the presidential election of Dilma Rouseff and José Serra just two years ago. And although Brazil has one of the world’s cleanest, most efficient, electronically advanced procedures for voting, the process is far from clean and efficient.

Not many Brazilians favor a compulsory democratic voting process. Many of them seem to think that a non-compulsory system is much more democratic in nature and truer to the spirit of democracy particular in terms of freedom of speech. Over the past month, for example, I held a series of informal, unstructured, interviews with attorneys, executives, engineers, professors, computer experts, and clergy. They all overwhelmingly concur that the compulsory voting process of Brazil is corrupt and they do not place much confidence in the candidates – that is, they feel that all the candidates are corrupt. The only real difference is (as Brazilians have a tendency to put it…) some are corrupt and do for the people while others are corrupt and do nothing for the people. Moreover, they all seem to agree that Brazil’s form of democracy is not a “real” democracy. Many of the people that I spoke with, stated that compulsory voting started under the dictatorship regime which instituted a form of “relative democracy” where Congress remained open but with few powers; regular elections were held for Congress, state assemblies, and local offices. However, presidential, gubernatorial, and some mayoral elections became indirect. They don’t seem to understand how a process instituted under a dictatorship could remain a practice within a democracy.

Brazilian election laws are very complex and detailed. The law requires that all candidates who hold executive positions resign six months before the election. No “write-in” candidacies are allowed; only candidates officially presented by a registered political party may participate (…Brazil has twenty-seven different political parties). Parties choose their candidates in municipal, state, or national conventions. Although the legislation does not recognize party primaries officially, on occasion they have been used informally. Registration and voting are compulsory between the ages of eighteen and seventy ;illiterates vote, but their voting registration card identifies their status, and they sign the voting list with a fingerprint on election day. The 1988 constitution lowered the voting age, permitting sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to vote on a voluntary basis. In 1994 these young voters (who cannot legally drink or drive) totaled 2,132,190 (2.2 percent of the electorate). For these reasons, turnouts for all elections in Brazil are very high, usually more than 85 percent.

The leading argument against compulsory voting is that it is not consistent with the freedom associated with democracy. Voting is not an intrinsic obligation and the enforcement of the law would be an infringement of the citizens’ freedom associated with democratic elections. It may discourage the political education of the electorate because people forced to participate will react against this perceived source of oppression. Is a government really more legitimate if the high voter turnout is against the will of the voters? It has been proven that forcing the population to vote results in an increased number of invalid and blank votes compared to countries that have no compulsory voting laws.

Another consequence of mandatory voting is the possible high number of “random votes” or the “donkey vote.” Voters who are voting against their free will may check off a candidate at random, particularly the top candidate on the ballot. The voter does not care whom they vote for as long as the government is satisfied that they fulfilled their civic duty. What effect does this category of random votes have on the legitimacy of the democratically elected government?

Finally, the debate on compulsory voting is not a new one. There are examples of countries that have practiced compulsory voting but since have abandoned it. Also, the diverse forms that compulsory voting has taken throughout the world refocuses the debate particularly in view of the many countries in the Middle East that are throwing off forms of monarchy for democracy. Will these countries institute a non-compulsory form of voting similar to the United States or will they opt for some sort of hybrid form of democracy? More important, the degree and manner in which governments force their citizens to participate is a debate that calls into question the very essence of the right to vote. What do you think?

[Footnote: there are actually 32 countries that practice compulsory voting in the world many of which are in Latin America]

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