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Compulsory voting: Are we ready for it?

Advocates of compulsory voting argue that decisions made by democratically elected governments are more legitimate when higher proportions of the population participate.
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

After the din of the election subsided with no clear winner and a pyrrhic victory at best, the controversy regarding inter-phase and intra-phase percentage of voting will continue.

Initially, there were reports of a low voter turnout compared with that in the previous election. Some subsequent revisions in the data invited adverse comments from certain political parties which desired that the absolute number of votes polled should be put out in the public domain by the Election Commission directly. Apart from regional variations, the variations in the same constituency sometimes ranged from 60% initially to 67% later. The matter was taken to the Supreme Court by a couple of NGOs stating that there was an unusually sharp spike in figures from the initial voter turnout released by the poll panel, creating doubts about the authenticity of data.

The Supreme Court asked the Election Commission to explain its inability to immediately upload on its website authenticated, scanned and legible account of votes recorded booth-wise after each phase of polling in the Lok Sabha election. Subsequently, upon the commission’s submission that such uploading of data was not statutorily mandated, the Supreme Court declined to issue orders on booth-wise voter data.

Amid this confusion, there is a lone voice demanding in order to ensure free and fair elections as well as to reflect definitive choice of the voters, voting should be made compulsory.

Most democratic governments consider participation in national elections a right of citizens. Some even consider that such participation is the citizen’s civic duty. In some countries, therefore, voting has been made compulsory and has been provided for in the national constitutions and electoral laws. Some countries have gone as far as to impose sanctions or fines on non-voters.

Advocates of compulsory voting argue that decisions made by democratically elected governments are more legitimate when higher proportions of the population participate. It is further argued that voting voluntarily or otherwise has an educational effect upon the citizens. Moreover, if democracy is government of the people and by the people, it implies all people, and therefore it is every citizen’s responsibility to elect their representatives.

The leading argument against compulsory voting is that it is inconsistent with the freedom associated with democracy. The people should have the choice whether to vote or not to vote. In India, the voting machine goes so far as to provide an alternative called NOTA (none of the above).

Some of the countries where voting is compulsory include Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, Greece, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Singapore and Thailand.

During one of my visits to Australia, one day I had a visitor (whom I shall call Mr. Rao) in my hotel room whom I did not know. In the course of our conversation, it turned out that he came from the southern part of India and had somehow come to know about my South Indian connection. He and his wife and their family had settled down in Australia and had been living together for several years.

We had an initial conversation comparing our notes about Andhra Pradesh, its tourist sites and of course the variety of mangoes. The attractions of the cities of Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam were also exchanged.

After the initial small talk, Mr. Rao told me that he and his family had acquired Australian citizenship. Some time later, his in-laws joined them and started living with them. In due course, they were helped by Mr. Rao to acquire Australian citizenship. But things started to go sour and the couple divorced. His wife and her parents decided to go back to India along with the children. Soon thereafter, there were elections in which his wife and her parents were required to vote which they could not as they were not in Australia any more.

Mr. Rao had no choice but to pay the penalty for non-voting on their behalf.

What would be the scenario if compulsory voting is mandated in India? How will it be implemented? How will the non-voters be identified? With huge number of bogus voters and recent instances of voter ID cards having been found in the garbage, it will be a mammoth task to track the non-voters in the first instance. Given they are traced, what should be the punishment imposed on them? Should they be jailed or should they be fined? Or should any other type of sanction be imposed on them such as denying them the facility of subsidies available to common citizens or depriving them of their citizenship?

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