Don Lenihan (against) and Andrew Coyne (for) were scheduled to debate mandatory voting yesterday at the University of Ottawa. Unfortunately, the debate had to be postponed due to aircraft problems. Below are Don Lenihan¹s speaking points for the debate. At the bottom readers will find a link to an Andrew Coyne column in which he argues for mandatory voting.
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I’m delighted to see you all here today. Thank you so much for coming out.
I’m here because I believe our democracy is in trouble. Voter turnout is the most important indicator of citizens’ faith in the political system and the numbers are falling fast, especially among young people. We have to fix this.
Some very sensible people think mandatory voting may be the answer. They say that youth need a gentle “nudge” to prod them out of their indifference and help them become responsible citizens.
I see things differently. While apathy is an issue, lots of young people do care about public issues, from internet freedom to student debt. The problem is that they tend to engage in ways that they find meaningful—and politics and voting rarely make the list.
But whose fault is that?
Not theirs. When my generation entered politics, the system may not have been perfect, but most of us still felt it worked. Today, it is hard to see beyond the hyper-partisan battles and the constant campaigning.
Rather than answers to questions, politicians give us talking points and spin.
Policy decisions get made in a black hole and too often reflect short-term political gain, rather than the public interest.
Scandals, like those around Toronto Mayor Rob Ford or Senator Mike Duffy, leave citizens shaking their heads in disgust and disbelief.
Seen from this angle, if democracy needs saving, it is not so much from young people’s apathy as the older generations’ growing cynicism.
I agree that youth have a duty to help keep our democracy working, but duty is a two-way street. The older generations have a duty to pass on a healthy democracy. And on this, we are the ones who are failing. I believe this failure is the principal cause behind falling voter turnout. If we’re going to fix it, everyone has to work together.
While I have lots of ideas on how to do this, my primary task today is to explain why mandatory voting will make this harder, rather than easier. However, I want to say from the start that this issue is not clear cut. There are strong arguments for it, some of which my debating partner, Andrew Coyne, has already made.
I see my role here today more as one of making clear the downsides of mandatory voting, rather than simply opposing it. Let me begin.
Shortly after the Arab spring in 2011, I attended a United Nations meeting in Beirut to discuss democracy. Many of the delegates were from Arab countries.
At the time, they were on the threshold of what everyone thought was a new era in democracy. We talked a lot about elections and I was struck by how carefully and respectfully they broached the subject of voting.
We agreed that, first and foremost, voting is about being free to make a choice. But for these Arab delegates, the main choice was not about which party to vote for, but about whether to vote at all.
Casting your ballot, they argued, involves a solemn commitment to honour the process and to let the winner assume power. Their reasons were compelling.
These delegates came from a region where religious factions have been killing each other for centuries; and where for most people democracy is little more than an idea.
In such countries, deciding to participate in an election and consenting to live with the outcome really can be a life and death decision. As a result, if those delegates were here today, I suspect they would be confused by the discussion.
Legitimacy, they would say, requires consent and free participation in elections is the only reliable indicator of consent. If you compel people to vote, how will you know who has given their consent and who has not? How will you know if the process or the new government has real legitimacy?
Now maybe you’re thinking that, while legitimacy is a problem in Egypt or the Congo, it is not an issue in Canada. We have a long democratic tradition and the legitimacy of our elections is not in question.
In fact, legitimacy is emerging as a serious concern here too, as Andrew Coyne recently noted.
In one of his columns, Andrew argues that falling voter turnout could lead to a “crisis of legitimacy” right here in Canada. I agree with him. We are not immune from such a crisis.
Basically, if people are not voting, they are not giving their consent. And if they are not giving their consent, they are not legitimizing the electoral process.
This has real consequences. A weak mandate makes it harder for a government to implement controversial decisions, such as to send our troops to war, legalize same-sex marriage or cancel the long-form census.
So, yes, voter turnout really does matter. It is the key indicator of a government’s legitimacy. It is worryingly low—and it is getting lower.
That is exactly why we are having this debate. People who work in politics are getting nervous about the implications and mandatory voting looks like an easy way to shore up the vote and strengthen legitimacy.
But if my Arab friends are right, far from enhancing legitimacy, mandatory voting will weaken it. Once people are compelled to vote, we have lost our strongest and clearest measure of the strength of their commitment to the process.
And that threatens to turn debates over legitimacy into even more of a mug’s game than they are now. We are already arguing over who does or does not have a mandate and for what purposes. Where will that go from here?
Proponents of mandatory voting suggest a way around this—a way Andrew seems to endorse. They think we can reconcile mandatory voting with consent by including a space on the ballot that lets the voter choose “none of the above” (NOTA).
This is supposed to give us the best of both worlds: high voter turnout will engage people and legitimize the process, but people will still be free to register their dissent.
I disagree. Not votingand voting for NOTA are very different things.
As people stop voting, questions start arising about the legitimacy of the process. Indeed, as Andrew rightly recognizes, if enough people stop voting, it could cause a crisis.
Well, sometimes a crisis is the only way to get decision-makers to take real action. I think we need real action. I think we need serious political change. People are not just apathetic.
They are tuning out because they don’t believe there is any point in participating. And, frankly, too often I find myself agreeing with them.
However, rather than highlighting the need for change, voting for NOTA actually disguises it. If enough people vote NOTA, the party with the most votes may feel some discomfort, it may even feel obliged to make some conciliatory gestures toward these voters; but it will insist that at least everyone has exercised their right to choose and that, as a result, the process is legitimate—and that it, as the winner, has a mandate to govern. Democracy, they will conclude, may be a little messy, but it is alive and well…
This is nothing but political sleight of hand. You can’t compel people to vote and then claim that they have made a choice. Democratic legitimacy doesn’t work that way. It is something that must be freely given. It can never be coerced or taken.
All this tactic really does is paper over a whole lot of disillusionment, remove it from public scrutiny, and allow the winners to make a bogus claim to legitimacy.
The way to get real legitimacy is to get people to choose to vote—to show up willingly. And for that, political parties must be willing to do the hard work required to earn people’s trust and engage them in the process.
Yes, youth and others are failing in their duty to help make our democracy work and that is a real problem. But the main cause of this lies elsewhere. It lies in our failure to provide adequate reasons to believe in the system. Fixing that is the really pressing task that lies ahead.
I fear that mandatory voting will only divert attention from it and encourage official Ottawa to keep doing what it is doing. And that will solve nothing.
There are no short cuts. There is no silver bullet. There is never a silver bullet.
Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on democracy, public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Since 2009, he has been Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. From October 2013 to April 2014, Don served as Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@ppforum.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan