Mandatory voting: turning Canadians’ democratic ‘choice’ into ‘duty’

TheStar.com – news/insight
17 August 2012.   Susan Delacourt

OTTAWA—One phrase keeps popping up in the complaints about fraudulent calls in the 2011 election, when hapless voters were reportedly told their polling locations had changed.

It’s this: “due to higher-than-expected turnout.” Presumably, the callers wanted to plant the suggestion that voting was a nuisance to be avoided — what with the changed location and all those crowds at the ballot boxes. “It’s a stampede, Martha, like we saw when the new iPhones came out. Let’s just wait it out.”

That scenario, however, would not work as well if voting was legally compulsory in Canada.

The idea of mandatory voting floated up again in a column last week by Mia Rabson in the Winnipeg Free Press. Her concerns revolved mainly around the falling turnout — barely at 60 per cent in the past decade and considerably less than that among young people.

That’s one good reason. But cleaning up politics might be another side benefit.

As Rabson notes, being “too busy” is the main reason cited by Canadians for not voting.

Andre Blais of the Université de Montréal has dug a bit deeper into that whole too-busy-to-vote business and has put his finger on a larger, cultural issue — the decline of “duty” and the rise of “choice” in our collective values.

Blais discussed this at a 2011 Library of Parliament conference on voter apathy. Duty was a far bigger deal for people in the first half of the 20th century, Blais said — whether it was military service during the two world wars, or religious and other obligations to family and community.

Choice, however, became a bigger priority after World War II, when it got all tied up with political and cultural embrace of liberty and the exploding consumer choice on store shelves.

For curiosity’s sake, I decided after Blais’s talk to plug some words into a Google gadget called “Ngrams,” which allows you to search and compare word usage over time in the vast archive of Google online books.

Sure enough, the Ngram shows the word “duty” was declining in use all through the 20th century, while “choice” was on the rise. The two lines on the chart meet around 1960, and then duty continues its downward trajectory, while choice continues to overtake it through to 2008 (the latest year available to search). Then I threw in a comparison of “consumer” and “citizen.” Same pattern, with citizen roughly similar to “duty” and consumer roughly similar to “choice.” In that chart, the two lines meet around the 1970s.

This is all to say that voting is probably viewed more as a choice than a duty these days and that we may see it as something like shopping — not fun when the store is busy, “due to higher-than-expected turnout.”

And that brings us back to the fraudulent calls in the last election.

Patrick Muttart, formerly a chief strategist for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has intensely studied politics in Australia. But on the ground Down Under, Muttart noted one big difference with Canada.

In Australia, voting is mandatory. In Canada, it’s not. Muttart told me earlier this year that he was struck by how quiet things are there on election day — all the frenzied get-out-the-vote efforts by parties in Canada simply don’t exist in Australia.

Ask any Canadian political volunteer, of any stripe, about that big E-day push, known by the acronym GOTV. It can be a circus. And in the midst of that melee in the 2011 federal election, someone got the idea that the tools of GOTV, the databases and the phone contacts, could be used just as easily to keep voters away from the polls.

That’s already illegal. It’s well beyond a prank, whatever the fraudsters thought they were doing.

Mandatory voting wouldn’t end dirty tricks in elections. Nor would it put an end to the databases and the robocalls that parties all use for fundraising, as well as GOTV.

But Canadians have a lot of respect for the law. Chances are, if voting was compulsory, it would be a little more difficult to steer them away from their democratic duty.

A long time ago, when Harper headed the National Citizens Coalition, he dismissed mandatory-voting suggestions as oppressive. Harper accused the man who was then Canada’s chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, of wanting to become a state cop.

“Would Kingsley’s police use the election register to go house to house to force people to the polls or arrest them?”

As we’ve now learned through the fraudulent calls, someone (figuratively) was going house to house — not to make people vote, but to make them stay away. Now that’s oppressive.

And, of course, with compulsory voting, we would expect every citizen to show up at the ballot box. There would be no such thing as “higher-than-expected” turnout, whatever that meant in the minds of those fraudulent callers in 2011.

That alone may want to get us thinking about making voting a legal duty, not just a choice.

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