What about a voter credit?

The decision to vote or not vote is highly contentious and has led to some quite strong allegations against non-voters for being lazy, apathetic or offensive to democracy.

Bryce Edwards wrote an excellent piece in which he suggested that:

 ‘ if you’re bored by it all, unimpressed with the lack of meaningful electoral options, or just disgruntled with the state of your local authority and democracy, then one of the most powerful options you have is to protest by not participating’.

He further stated that:

‘in reality it’s your legitimate right not to endorse what might seem like an electoral sham’.

Some were highly critical of this view suggesting that our ancestors died for our right to vote and by not doing so, we were doing them a great disservice by disrespecting the democratic rights they fought for.

Others pointed out that not all non-voters are making rational choices to not vote. Rather, there are a significant proportion of eligible voters who are disengaged from the political process.

In a recent Listener article by Jennifer Curtin (paywalled), she argued that its time for New Zealand to at least consider compulsory voting given the impact it has had on voter turnout and voter engagement in Australia. She states that:

‘Australia’s electoral law requires all voters to attend a polling place rather than actually cast a vote, but most fulfil this obligation and so turnout rates average about 94% and are even higher if informal votes are also counted’.

Curtin suggested that:

‘voter participation in turn leads to a broader sense of political efficacy: the feeling that individual political action does, or can, have an impact on politics’.

My personal view aligns to Bryce Edwards, insofar as choosing not to vote is a legitimate right. I’m not persuaded by Curtin’s analysis of engagement in Australia, because I do not accept that voter turnout reflects engagement under a compulsory scheme. It might only suggest that people are voting to avoid the $20 fine for not turning up to the polling booth and that they might in fact just be ticking boxes without making any meaningful selections.

The general arguments for compulsory voting that I’ve seen are that:

  1. We have a civic duty to vote
  2. 22 other countries including Australia have compulsory voting with apparent positive effects
  3. Vulnerable or marginalised groups are often in the non-voting category and compulsion avoids social bias by incentivising political parties to appeal to as many voters as possible, including these groups
  4. It avoids participation bias [similar to above] because when minority groups participate it makes it difficult for parties to campaign on issues that would adversely affect those minority groups.

I think these are pretty compelling arguments, but I still don’t believe that it is democratic to force a person to vote or even turn up to a polling booth against their will. There are a number of reasons why this is unjust but the most obvious (in my view) is that the right to vote is a freedom and when compulsion is attached to that right, it is no longer a freedom, it becomes a duty.

Its been suggested that some people might view ‘voting’ as both a right and a duty. And that may be the case under the current freedoms that we have, but under a compulsory scheme, it is no longer a right we have against the state, it becomes a duty we owe to the state. It subjugates the will of the individual to the might of the state.

This is reinforced when non-compliance results in punitive consequences. In Australia, its a $20 fine for not turning up to the polling booth.

It was suggested by a Young Labour member that citizens be stripped of their passports if they didn’t turn up to the polling booth and if they were repeat offenders that they should also be fined.

Why is that many first of all think in terms of punitive consequences and stripping of rights?

Here’s my (probably very naive) view: we should advocate for a voter credit. Why? Because if we want to incentivise people to turn up to vote, then framing the experience as a positive one will surely be far more effective than threatening non-voters. In terms of how much this would cost, I don’t know. What I can say is that if we implemented a compulsory system with fines for non-compliance then it would involve costs for administration, enforcement and labour, which could be more expensive than issuing a credit. Additionally, it wouldn’t involve taking rights away from people. It secures those rights while rewarding those who choose to participate. I also think, like many others, that there should be a no confidence in any candidate or party option on electoral forms.

Arguably, this voter credit scheme might have the same problems as the compulsory scheme in that people are only voting to get the voter credit, so it might not solve the engagement issue. But in my experience, we (humans) tend to respond well to positive reinforcements and perhaps a voter credit might at least be a step in the right direction.

However, I  do worry about the perception that this is buying voters. But isn’t it better to have those voters voluntarily cast their vote through a positive incentive rather than the alternative?

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One comment

  1. Forcing people to vote whitewashes away the reason many people don’t vote: they are not in tune with any of the offered choices. They are disappointed, insulted or creeped out by the candidates that are being offered up as potential representatives. One could point to a variety of reasons for this, but the underlying one is that we are no longer living at a time where it is acceptable
    – to have rules and regulations foisted upon citizens without their having had a chance to weigh in on these;
    – to have a national governance system that is driven by self-serving partisan politics, the trafficking of influence, and close-door power mongering.

    NZ’s national literacy rate is 91.2% – this is a far cry from the ignorance of peasants which was the norm when the Westminster system of government fist saw the light in England in the year 1295 when Edward I approved the “Model Government”.

    Form must follow function: when the function changes, so must the form, otherwise it dies from irrelevance. This is why people don’t vote.

    Were we to reinvent national governance today, unshackled from the irrelevance of systems that have come from centuries past, what would it look like? Would we still have representatives? Would we still be voting for others to take decisions for us, or would we be engaged somehow in the decision making itself? What would that look like?

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