ALBERT BRANDFORD: Mandatory voting
EVERY SO OFTEN, Barbadians hear their politicians speak of widening and deepening our process of participatory democracy.
Some of the too cynical are quick to dismiss the rhetoric, “what participatory democracy what, man? You mean a couple of minutes in a voting booth every five years?”
There is no denying the apathy among citizens, some of whom, unfortunately, seem to think that is their only role and are able to boast: “I voted!”
Yet, there are others, particularly among that broad category classified as “the youth” who a team of wild horses would not be able to drag near that voting booth on Election Day.
It is a matter of historical record that our voter turnout seldom reaches above the 60 per cent mark with the 2003 poll number of 56.8 per cent being the lowest since the attainment of Universal Adult Suffrage in 1951.
One could not go far wrong in surmising that it may have taken the extraordinary escalation, both in extent and sophistication, of the invidious phenomenon of vote-buying – about which we heard so much recently – to spark their interest.
So that instead of a boastful pride in the performance of a hard-earned civic duty for which our foreparents sacrificed so much, their involvement had to be coaxed by a few Errol Barrows and Sir Grantleys.
But what if the money incentive were removed?
This past week, there was a titillating suggestion from the leader of what’s described as the world’s greatest experiment in democracy – the United States – where money is the single most corrupting influence in elections, that mandatory voting should be introduced.
“That would counteract money more than anything,” suggested President Barack Obama. “If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country, because the people who tend not to vote are young; they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups; and they’re often the folks who are . . . they’re scratching and climbing to get into the middle class.
“And they’re working hard, and there’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls. We should want to get them into the polls. So that may end up being a better strategy in the short term.”
Some in America, and possibly a few here, may be tempted to dismiss the comments as the musings of a lame duck president comfortably deep into his second term and who has already secured his legacy.
But is mandatory voting so far-fetched or outrageous?
Currently, legislation is in place and enforced in more than a dozen of about 40 states which have had or still have compulsory voting, including the most often cited Commonwealth colleague, Australia, where failure to vote commonly attracts the sanction of a fine.
Parenthetically, in cases where the non-voter does not pay the fines after being reminded or after refusing several times, the courts may impose a prison sentence. This is usually classified as imprisonment for failure to pay the fine, not imprisonment for failure to vote.
According to the Stockholm-based Intergovernmental agency, International IDEA, compulsory voting is not a new concept, with Belgium introducing the legislation in 1892, Argentina in 1914, and Australia (to which we in Barbados frequently look in formulating our own statutes) in 1924, while countries like Venezuela and the Netherlands, have had such laws which were subsequently abolished.
“Advocates of compulsory voting argue that decisions made by democratically elected governments are more legitimate when higher proportions of the population participate,” IDEA noted. “They argue further that voting, voluntarily or otherwise, has an educational effect upon the citizens.
“Political parties can derive financial benefits from compulsory voting, since they do not have to spend resources convincing the electorate that it should in general turn out to vote.
“The leading argument against compulsory voting is that it is not consistent with the freedom associated with democracy. Voting is not an intrinsic obligation and the enforcement of the law would be an infringement of the citizens’ freedom associated with democratic elections.
“It may discourage the political education of the electorate because people forced to participate will react against the perceived source of oppression.”
Initial reaction to Obama’s suggestion was telling with most of the vitriol, predictably, emerging from the right wing with one commentator saying there was “something inherently distasteful and even alarming about the government telling the populace it must vote. It seems just a step away from having the government tell you for whom you must vote, which of course makes the whole process of voting meaningless anyway. And yet, surely there is something that can be done to improve the abysmal turnout rates in US elections.”
That kind of garbage aside, it seems to me that Obama was on the right track in starting a conversation on finding creative ways to reduce the influence of money.