At the time of writing, the pre-election period for Canadians is around the halfway mark. The party leaders are usually fairly eloquent in their efforts to persuade us where to place our votes and where not to place them. But who has the right to vote and how many of us will exercise that right? According to elections Canada the percentage of those who voted in the last election was 61.4%. Does this mean we do not value our right to vote?
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms forms Part 1 of The Canada Act, which is the legal constitution of Canada. It states under the title of Democratic Rights: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein”. The Canada Elections Act states: “Every person who is a Canadian citizen and is 18 years of age or older on polling day is qualified as an elector.” Why does such a large portion of the population not value this right?
The Canadian constitution is based on the principles of democracy and the right to vote is at the very essence of democracy. Democracy means citizens govern themselves either directly or indirectly through elected representatives. It means government by the people, and ideally for the people. It also presupposes a society in which people are treated equally and with respect. Our law provides us with the right and privilege of choosing those who are to represent our interests. Our vote is an expression of our will and our opinion as to who those people will be. Why do so many fail to exercise that privilege? As citizens of Canada, should voting be considered a duty and should we be obliged to vote?
There are about 12 countries where voting is compulsory and the duty to do so is enforced. Sanctions range from fines, banking prohibitions, removal from the electoral register, being barred from taking professional examinations, receiving wages, or renewing enrolment in official schools or universities. Some countries, which have had compulsory voting, have now abolished it; others have it but fail to enforce it, and still others continue advocating for it.
In 2006 the UK parliament created an independent body, the Electoral Commission, which produced a list of the pros and cons of compulsory voting. The arguments in favour of compulsory voting are that it is not only a right but a duty to vote, that the legitimacy of a government’s mandate is weakened by low turnout, that an unequal turnout among different socio-economic groups risks unequal political influence, that political parties and candidates can shift time and resources from mobilizing turnout to promoting policies, that compulsory voting can increase political awareness and facilitate more informed debate, that increased voting can promote participation in other political activities. The arguments presented against compulsory voting are that it would run counter to the UK’s current political culture, that it would undermine the freedom associated with democracy – some argue that the right to vote implies the right not to, it would be difficult and expensive to enforce, that reluctant voters would deliberately spoil their votes or cast ill-considered votes.
How a compulsory voting system can be enforced, what might be appropriate sanctions and whether or not the right to vote implies the right not to vote are debatable. It has been suggested that the duty of the electorate should be to attend the voting station and be provided with the option of “none of the above” in addition to the list of candidates. It is clear from the available evidence that compulsory voting increases aggregate turnout. The percentage turnout in Belgium, which has compulsory voting in 2014, was 89.3%. In the Netherlands when there was compulsory voting in 1967, the turnout was 94.95% and in 2012 when compulsory voting had been abolished it was 74.56%. In Australia where compulsory voting exists, the turnout in 2013 was 93.23%.
The reality is that we are living in a democracy and democracy depends on its citizens expressing their will by means of a vote rather than by means of a riot. The issues are important and every vote does make a difference. If we are not involved in the election process can we truly say we live in a democracy?