The Case for Mandatory Voting in Canada

By Harb, Mac | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The Case for Mandatory Voting in Canada


Harb, Mac, Canadian Parliamentary Review


The decline in voter turnout over the last several elections is of great concern to everyone interested in politics and parliamentary government. Many ideas have been put forth about how to address this problem including a recent Bill that would provide for a system of compulsory voting similar to that used in several other countries. The following article is based on the speech at second reading by the sponsor Of Bill S-22.

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Our democracy depends upon the active participation of its citizens, and, while voting is only one element of political engagement, it remains the very foundation of our democracy. Reinforcing this foundation is the goal of Bill S-22, which will establish mandatory voting in Canada.

This legislation is a direct response to a rising electoral crisis. Voter turn out has been on the decline in Canada since the 1960s, reaching a record low of just 60.9 per cent in the 2004 election. Other Western democracies are also experiencing the same dramatic drop. Only 55.3 per cent of Americans voted in the 2004 presidential election, and the 2001 British general election recorded a turnout of just 57.6 per cent.

Only one in four Canadians under the age of 25 bothered to vote in the last election. Research shows, that these young people, as they age, may not re-engage in the system as their parents and grandparents did. Canadian researchers tell us that this generational shift represents a cultural change that could shake the very foundation of our democratic institutions.

Research gathered by the Association for Canadian Studies also indicates that the low turnout rate effectively disenfranchises a large number of Canadians. A study done after the last election found voter turnout ranged from 62.7 per cent to 75.4 per cent in the nine ridings with the highest average income in the country. The nine ridings with the lowest average income experienced a turnout rate from 45.1 per cent to 61.5 per cent. Whose voices are being heard? Perhaps, more importantly, whose voices are not being heard?

Renowned political scientist Arend Lijphart in the United States put it this way:

   A political system with the universal right to vote but
   with only a tiny fraction of citizens exercising this right
   should be regarded as a democracy in merely a ... hollow
   sense of the term.

While analysts cite a variety of reasons for the voting decline including, sadly, disdain for politicians, apathy about the issues and the hectic demand of modern life, I believe that the most important factor is a fading sense of civic duty when it comes to voting and participation in our democratic institutions.

In preparing for this legislation, I have met and corresponded with a great number of Canadians. A great many have said it is about time, and that we need this kind of signal from the government that voting is still an important element of our system. Of those opposed to the concept of mandatory voting, the most common criticism is that the bill will restrict an individual's freedom to choose whether or not to vote.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada's Chief Electoral Officer answered this criticism best when he said, "The right to vote is only meaningful when you use it."

In Canada all citizens who are at least 18 years of age on election day have the right to vote in a general election, with the exception of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada. We fought long and hard for this right, overcoming gender, racial, religious or administrative obstacles to ensure women, judges, persons with disabilities and prisoners in correctional facilities were given the right to vote. After years of battling for the right to vote, we have lost sight of the associated duty that goes along with this right, and that is the inherent responsibility to vote.

Voting is a positive duty owed by citizens to the rest of our society, much like paying taxes, reporting for jury duty, wearing a seat belt or attending school until the age of 16. …

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