With the ever increasing partisan divide and voter participation rates steady at about 50% to 60% in presidential contests, the key to winning in general elections is turnout. And the key to success is turning out one’s ideological base. Whichever party does a better job getting its base to the polls reaps the rewards of majority status. And what’s the best way to get the base to show up at the voting booth? Focus on divisive issues that underscore the differences between the parties.
It has been suggested that compulsory voting may influence the focus of a campaign towards swinging voters, with candidates and political parties trying to win the votes of the undecided, rather than motivating their "base" supporters to the polls. Thus it could be argued that politicians might adopt more centrist and less extreme policies in order to appeal to the relatively small group of swinging voters, rather than to their broader base constituencies.
Over twenty countries in the world including Singapore, Cyprus, Greece, Austria and Belgium, have forms of mandatory voting which require their citizens to register to vote and to go to their polling place or vote on election day. However one of the most well-known compulsory voting systems is in Australia.
All eligible Australian citizens over the age of 18 must be registered to vote and show up at the poll on election day. Those who do not vote are subject to fines although those who are incapable of voting on election day can have their fines waived.
Compulsory voting in Australia was adopted in the province of Queensland in 1915 and subsequently adopted nationwide in 1924. With Australia's compulsory voting system, there is additional flexibility built in for the voter - elections are held on Saturdays, absent voters can vote in any state polling place, and voters in remote areas can vote before an election (at pre-polling voting centers) or via mail.
Voter turnout of those registered to vote in Australia was as low as 47% prior to the 1924 compulsory voting law. In the decades since 1924, voter turnout has hovered around 94% to 96%. In 1924, Australian officials felt that compulsory voting would eliminate voter apathy. However, compulsory voting now has its detractors. In their Fact Sheet on Voting, the Australian Electoral Commission provides some arguments in favor and against compulsory voting.
Some arguments in favour of compulsory voting:
-Voting is a civic duty comparable to other duties citizens perform (e.g. taxation, compulsory education, or jury duty).
-Government reflects more accurately the "will of the electorate."
-Governments must consider the total electorate in policy formulation and management.
-Candidates can concentrate their campaigning energies on issues rather than encouraging voters to attend the poll.
-Voter are not actually compelled to vote for anyone because voting is by secret ballot.
Some arguments against compulsory voting:
-It is undemocratic to force people to vote - an infringement of liberty.
-The "ignorant" and those with little interest in politics are forced to the polls.
-It may increase the number of spoiled votes.
-It increases the number of safe, single-member electorates - political parties then concentrate on the more marginal electorates.
-Resources must be allocated to determine whether those who failed to vote have "valid and sufficient" reasons.
Advocates of compulsory voting might argue that such a system has a higher degree of representation, and that low voter participation in a voluntary election is in itself an expression of the citizenry's political will and could indicate satisfaction with the political establishment in an electorate.
Either way, with compulsory voting general political apathy is harder to find and that's always a good thing.