A democracy cannot be imagined without the participation of its citizens in the democratic process and election is one such process. Worldwide skewed voters’ turnout has become a matter of deep concern which poses threat to democracy per se as it doesn’t represent the popular sentiment of the electorate. To encourage voter turnout, compulsory voting has been widely considered as a cost effective and efficient institutional mechanism. One of the notable examples of the effective enforcement of compulsory voting is Australia.

The recent assent to the Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Act, 2009 by Gujarat Governor has triggered a country wide debate on compulsory voting as this statute would make it mandatory for the citizens to vote in the Municipal and Panchayat level elections in the State.

Low turnout undermining democracy

The disturbing trend of a constant decline in the electoral participation in all the established democracies is eroding the legitimacy of the democratic norms and values. Further, low turnout also puts a question mark on the ruling government’s credibility as truly reflecting the general will of the people and India is no exception to this. One can argue that going by the recent parliamentary and state elections, a remarkable surge of turnout has been witnessed, but the truth is that the average turnout in elections has still been below 65% in every general election since the Independence, which has left around 30 million odd people out of the biggest festival of democracy even after honest efforts from the political parties, government and the Election Commission, who are the principal agents in ensuring maximum participation of the voters.

Many scholars have regarded diminishing electoral participation as a ‘barometer to the health of democratic participation’ as voters are unable to connect to the democratic process and its functions. The low turnout is an indication of the satisfaction level of the voters in any established system. In other words, it is a measurement of a functional democratic institution and its machinery. The skepticism against the electoral process has stemmed from the fact that the citizens who are at the lowest rung of the ladder are not enthusiastic about voting as the representatives who they elect are either engaged in filling their own coffers by indulging in corruption practices or are busy in serving the elitist by overlooking the genuine interests of the people who elected them in the first place. The detachment towards the electoral process due to inaccessibility of democratic institutions has culminated into the pessimistic mindset of the citizens that their vote does not affect or shape the public policy, thus, questioning the very foundation of democracy itself.

Cynicism against Compulsory Voting

The fierce opponents of compulsory voting have contended that compulsory voting is antithetical to the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression and therefore, undemocratic. Compulsory voting limits political freedom and inhibits political dissatisfaction. Taking the clue from the European Court of Human Right (ECHR), this argument falls short from holding a normative value as ECHR in X v Austria case ruled that compulsory voting does not violate the right to freedom of conscience and thought. Even if we don’t rely on the EHCR ruling, the argument that compulsory voting is thwarting the political expression “right not to vote” doesn’t hold much water in the light of “None of the Above” (NOTA), a creative solution introduced by the Supreme Court of India in case of PUCL v Union of India. Through NOTA, citizens who are dissatisfied with the government can register their protest vote rather than abstaining from voting altogether. Each and every vote matters in a democracy. Protest votes are as valuable as the other votes even if they don’t influence the outcome of the elections because disaffection prompts agencies to restore the democratic institutions and its functioning for the welfare of the people.

The argument of unjustified intervention in individual freedom by the State and stifling political freedom is misplaced. Are we not compelled to pay taxes or follows traffic rules? If we take a look around our lives, there are numerous civic duties which are imposed by the State that we have to perform for the public at large. Absolute freedom is illusionary in a democracy as government, from time to time, imposes reasonable restrictions for the betterment of the people and therefore government’s intervention to uphold the democracy should not be considered as excessive or illegitimate. Given the importance of democracy and its institutions, government has every right and reason to demand or impose reasonable conditions on its citizen to perform their highest civic duty in favor of safeguarding and strengthening the democracy.

The contention that government must provide enabling environment to voters for voting, does not augur well. For instance, in 1950, if we had waited for the government to create conducive environment, then forget about enactment of any statue, even our cherished Constitution would not have been adopted till today.

It is true that some basic infrastructure and logistics’ support will be required to operationalize compulsory voting and that the law related to the compulsory voting will have to be provided with certain checks and balances. As far as judicial resources are concerned at the present moment, existing mechanisms are well equipped and sufficient to operationalize the Act. If necessary, a tribunal can be established to deal with the cases pertaining to compulsory voting.

The political rhetoric that people will be send to jail for non-compliance with compulsory voting is a mere exaggeration. The purpose of compulsory voting is to enhance the quality of democracy by mandatory voting and not to send people to jail for failing to vote. Some appropriate penalty should be there in order to strictly enforce compulsory voting, including progressive fines for repeated defaulters, although retribution in its imposition is just a figment of the imagination, given the social and political situation of a country.

Justification for Compulsory Voting

Inclusive participation in elections is a prerequisite for a democracy. It is through electoral participation that citizens communicate their choices and preferences to the government. An unequal participation perpetuates social and economic marginality among its citizens. One of the most pragmatic and effective means to tackle this serious democratic problem is compulsory voting.

Besides attaining the cherished goals of political equality, political integration, stability, minimizing elite power, legitimacy, representativeness and accountability etc., the salutary effects of compulsory voting will minimize the electoral corruption, as a full and active participation will decrease the campaign funding and paid news, both of which have been a bone of contention for decades. It will also exponentially reduce the cost of elections and government, election commission, candidates and parties would no longer devote resources for turning out voters to vote as compulsory voting will do that on their behalf. Additionally, it will stir up debate and discussion on every nook and corner of the country about the political designs and policies which will ultimately enable the people to make informed choices while electing the representatives.

Nevertheless, howsoever admirable the goal of compulsory voting be, it cannot withstand the conspicuous legal vacuum. Hence, to avoid any fallout from the compulsory voting regime, legislature must safeguard compulsory voting as a fundamental right to vote of a citizen against the whims and fancies of governmental agencies by suitably amending the Constitution rather than merely recognizing it as a statutory right to perform duty.

In a democratic establishment, however, a more sustainable approach in a democratic process will be that the representatives must shed their lethargic attitude and arrogance and instill confidence among voters by fulfilling their aspirations through policies and actions; otherwise, obliging people to vote will be a futile exercise and may even prove to be counterproductive. Moreover, taking into account the competency we have acquired in the area of information and technology with the growing internet penetration and the use of handheld devices among younger generation, we can think of introducing e-voting in our country to bolster the voters’ turnout.

Progressive Step

Our prized democracy cannot afford to be an alternative for which millions of people have sacrificed their lives to achieve, preserve and protect it. Thus, the fundamental duty of making democracy more effective and participatory is incumbent upon each and every stakeholder of the democracy including its citizens, so that it can be celebrated in its fullest and real sense.

Much water has been flown in Ganges since Independence, but the experiment of the refining democratic culture and ethos is yet to be initiated. It is the ingenuity and activism of the Supreme Court of India which protects the participation and political inclusiveness of the country thereby persevering the democratic norms and social peace. So far as the electoral reforms are concerned, legislature has treaded cautiously and has abdicated its responsibility by not doing enough innovation in making democracy everybody’s business. Therefore, in this context Gujarat government should be lauded for the initiative. It is a right step in the right direction and a long overdue one. It is high time that sincere efforts are made to inculcate compulsory voting into political and cultural norm of the world’s largest democracy.