Is it time for mandatory voting in Canada?
On October 19, eligible Canadians can exercise a right that is fundamental in a representative democracy.
By marking a ballot, citizens have the power to vote for a national government they believe will best speak for their interests.
Since Canadians made a record 79.4 percent turnout in the 1958 election won by John Diefenbaker and his Progressive Conservative Party, fewer and fewer have been showing up at the polls.
Elections Canada’s numbers about voter participation in federal elections and referendums since 1867 show the following turnout in the last five elections in the present century: 61.2 percent in 2000; 60.9 percent, 2004; 64.7 percent, 2006; 58.8 percent, 2008; and 61.1 percent, 2011.
In many countries across the world, voting is not only a right. It is considered a duty that governments enforce through mandatory voting.
In Canada, retired politician Mac Harb is an advocate of compulsory voting.
Writing in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, the former Liberal MP and senator recalled that mandatory voting was introduced in Australia in 1924.
“Now, Australia has consistently boasted a turnout of over 90 per cent,” Harb wrote. “Compulsory voting in Belgium dates back to 1893. Currently, voter turnout in Belgium is over 90 per cent.”
“The most recent election in the European Union revealed the tremendous power of mandatory voting legislation and the pro-voting culture it brings along,” Harb continued. “Member states with mandatory voting during the last European Union elections had remarkable turnouts, with 90.8 per cent in Belgium, 89 per cent in Luxembourg, and 71 per cent in Cyprus, as compared with countries with no compulsory voting, voter turnout was only 42.7 per cent in France, 45.1 per cent in Spain and a mere 38.8 per cent in the United Kingdom.”
On Thursday (October 8), the philosophy department of Langara College in Vancouver will host a public forum about the pros and cons of mandatory voting.
The discussion will be held starting at 7 p.m. at the employee lounge of Langara (100 West 49th Avenue), with lawyer Murray Mollard as guest speaker.
Mollard was former executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. He is currently executive director of the North Shore Community Resources Society.
“Why is it important to have a discussion about this?” Mollard asked in a phone interview with the Straight. “Well, mandatory voting is really just a possible solution to the issue of voter turnout, problems with lower voter turnout, and it’s, you know, one of different options.”
“And why is low voter turnout a problem?” Mollard went on. “Well I think it raises questions about political legitimacy. It raises questions about the problem of undue influence that particular demographics [have] with respect to voting and political representation. So it’s a question of political equality really.”
As for his personal opinion about compulsory voting, Mollard said that he doesn’t have any.
However, as a civil libertarian, Mollard said that his “inclination is to resist state imposition of … what limits freedom.”
That said, Mollar explained that the “reality is, mandatory voting actually doesn’t require you to vote. What it does require you to do is show up at the polls and be registered. After you do that, you could do anything with your ballot if you wish, including spoiling the ballot. So it doesn’t actually require you to vote for any particular political party”.