Compulsory voting boosts turnout, but is it good for democracy?
In less than three weeks, Brazil — the world’s fourth-largest democracy — goes to the polls. So far, the focus of the election coverage, especially in the international media, has focused on personalities: The dramatic debarring of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former president and the frontrunner in opinion polls, from contesting because of his indictment for corruption, and the near-fatal knife attack earlier this month on the new frontrunner, the polarizing right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
But politics is also about systems and institutions. Political scientists are fascinated by the Brazilian system, which is something of an outlier among world democracies. After a few weeks in Brazil, so am I.
The single most important feature of elections in Brazil, to my mind, is the law that makes voting compulsory for all adults between the ages of 18 and 70. This norm is in stark contrast to most of the mature democracies of the West and the democratic polities of Asia, where all voters are solicited by parties but there is no compulsion to vote. In fact, compulsory voting is something of a feature of South American democracy as a whole — more than half of the 25 countries of the world that enforce it belong to this continent.
Those Brazilian citizens who do not vote — and are unable to provide a good reason for doing so (such as evidence of illness or of travel) — are subject to stiff penalties. They cannot apply for government jobs, for instance, or for passports. Given the potential costs of such sanctions, most citizens do turn out to vote. The consequences of political participation are quite significant. Basically, even the lowest level of voter turnout in elections in Brazil exceeds the highest level of voter turnout in other major democracies like India or the US. In the 2014 elections, turnout in Brazil was nearly 80 percent, close to the norm. In contrast, in the 2014 elections in India, turnout was 66.4 percent: An all-time record.
The single most important feature of elections in Brazil, to my mind, is the law that makes voting compulsory for all adults between the ages of 18 and 70.
Is compulsory voting a practice that improves the quality of a democracy? At first glance, the answer is yes. After all, political participation is the lifeblood of any democratic process (in countries where voting is voluntary, high voter turnout is unambiguously seen to be a good thing). Further, the majorities won by many parties and politicians in democracies the world over are not true majorities. In contrast, systems with compulsory voting confer genuine, broad-based authority on winners because the vote reflects the choices and preferences of the entire society and not just those who turned out to vote.
Finally, compulsory voting moderates the effects of economic inequality in a society. The poor in many democracies sometimes do not vote not because they do not wish to, but because they cannot afford to (the solution devised by many political parties is to pay them, in cash or kind, to vote). By making voting compulsory, countries like Brazil ensure the involvement of the entire society, irrespective of class, in the political process. In theory, this also has implications for political behavior outside the actual election cycle. If I know that I am going to have to vote, I might work harder to keep myself informed about candidates and parties.
But compulsory voting also opens itself up to certain paradoxes — one of which threatens to overwhelm the upcoming election in Brazil.
Briefly, as the political scientist and scholar of electoral designs, Arend Lijphart pointed out in 1997, what we call compulsory voting is, strictly speaking, a compulsory turnout. Voters may be obliged by law to go to the polling booths on election day, but they are not obliged to make a positive choice. They can leave their ballots blank, or (in what is called a null or “protest” vote) deliberately do something that would invalidate their vote.
Of course, blank and null votes cause a certain amount of noise in all elections. But in Brazil today, beset by corruption scandals (the last three presidents have all faced graft charges), reeling from an economic crisis, and with an unemployment rate of 13 percent, voter disenchantment with the political class is almost total. Many voters see elections as something of a farce, and intend to use their vote not to choose but to protest.
In fact, a poll commissioned by the political news website Poder360 in July found that more than 30 percent of respondents intended to annul their vote. This made them a bigger class than the supporters of any one of the front-runners in the electoral race (at that time, Lula and Bolsonaro).
Were this trend to persist until the October elections, the compulsory vote would once again delegitimize the actual winner by providing a kind of simultaneous, bitter and dispiriting rejection of his or her victory. Everyone would have voted, but most would have voted for no one.
By itself, then, compulsory voting is not a remedy for voter apathy in a democracy. Even without compulsory voting, mature democracies like those in Scandinavia achieve extremely high voter turnouts, showing a real societal investment in the political process. On Oct. 7 — and, if the election leads to a run-off, again on Oct. 28 — almost all those eligible to vote in Brazil will do so. But, in so doing, the main thing they might communicate is their disenchantment with voting itself.
• Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy.