Experimenting with compulsory voting

Let’s find out whether it works

This blog has long argued that for governance to improve more citizens must vote. So what should we make of the Gujarat state’s decision to make voting compulsory in all local body elections?

Constitutional and philosophical reasons apart (see Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s op-ed for this) this is an interesting experiment and it will be valuable to see what it leads to.

Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister and a proponent of compulsory voting calls it a “historic move to strengthen democracy” that will take “drawing room politics to the polling booth level.” But Mr Modi might be making the OMIPP—mistaking correlation for causation.

High voter turnouts might bring about responsive accountable governments because voting rate is a sign of an engaged electorate. But forcing everyone to vote might not have the same effect, because the people are merely forced to queue up and press a button on the voting machine—they are not being forced to “engage”. A non-engaged, apathetic electorate when forced to vote, might vote randomly, whimsically or spoil the ballot.

So compulsory voting might be equivalent to introducing a political wild-card without necessarily improving governance outcomes. The effect might vary ward by ward, constituency by constituency and region by region—it’s hard to answer the question of “who will it benefit?”

The experiment should be allowed so that we can add empirical evidence to the list of criteria we use to assess whether the idea of compulsory voting is a good one.

72 thoughts on “Experimenting with compulsory voting”

  1. This highlights the advantage of federalism. I would oppose compulsory voting on a national level; but it’s a fine experiment on the local level. If it works–it can be scaled up. Otherwise, it can be discarded with little harm done.

    Look at Nitin Gadkari–his attempt at BOT in Maharashtra is now the dominant thinking for road building. We need to expand the scope of local bodies to experiment in this fashion (as Gujarat has done in other areas as well) and publicize the successes and failures at the local level for other states to examine.

  2. I don’t see how such an assault on basic freedom can be seen as interesting. I am sure you are aware of all the arguments, slippery slope etc. This is not only silly, its dangerous. Modi must be really careful as anyway he is termed ‘Fascist’ by opponents

  3. Putting this another way, the experiments can’t include taking away rights and thereby alter the very definition of a government. That’s not just out of bounds, it’s been done several times in several places at various points across human civilization.

  4. I have a conspiracy theory… The real reason this is being attempted is that the BJP knows that its main support base is the middle class and obviously the middle class have the poorest record for voting turnout. It is simply a method to boost its chances of capturing power. Though I say conspiracy theory, I see this as a very real motive behind the move.

    -Pradeep

  5. Agree with Nilu – citizens are not guinea pigs. If I do not want to vote, I do not want to vote.

    But if it is being done, there must be an option of “none of the above”. (One thing we do not understand is those who do not vote is because of logistical/laziness reasons or not-good-enough-candidate reasons)

  6. Harsh,

    The test of what is permissible is constitutionality. If it is constitutional—and even Pratap Bhanu Mehta concedes that it might not be unconstitutional—there is no harm running an experiment to see if it leads to better governance. Remember local governments being the “laboratory for policy innovation”?

    Of course, we can debate whether something ought to be constitutional or not. But that is an altogether different debate.

  7. Nitin,

    Its a smart move to make it compulsory at the local lvel, since the participation can be tied to benefits like good water supply to that house.

    PPl are not going to vote, just because there is a law that says its compulsory. The main question ppl will be asking is – if I dont vote, what will modi do? How is he going to punish me? or enforce the law? If ppl find out that current supply, water supply are tied to the vote in a very direct and clear way…they will vote 🙂

  8. Umm, neither you nor Mehta is an expert on Constitutional Law. So, what you are left with is the ought to part. Sadly. Or happily, as the case may be. And a blog is not a court of law, so what people will discuss here is the ought to part. And you endorse the experiment by invoking the ought to aspect.

    I am just baffled how you shifted to what is from the ought to.

  9. Always amusing to see people opposing anything different and new that the Indian system throws up. Heck, an increase in income tax or sales tax or VAT or GST is arguably a greater & material assault on individual freedom, but that is acceptable because that has always been the case.

    But someone trying out a new idea in political reform is violating freedoms. I would say some of our commenters are an indulged lot!

  10. Udayan, you seem to not differentiate a system’s extent from scope.

    I may disagree with both but the differentiation is still important.

  11. Agree with Nitin. Let’s find out whether it works.

    From this interview with Modi (see after 3 minutes, when speaks in Hindi), it appears that there won’t be any punitive action; but there will be some incentives — like, those who voted will get some preference over those who haven’t voted when it comes to availing various services.

  12. The “ought to” part is not an “altogether” different debate by any stretch. You have taken a stand that this experiment “should” be allowed. Your post is not that mandated voting is constitutional because of such and such Supreme Court precedents. Therefore, if you have taken a normative position, others should also be allowed to reply with a normative position.

    Local govts (or state govts, as Arpit notes) should be laboratories of democracy indeed. But there is more nuance there as not anything goes at sub-national units – some individual rights are deemed inviolable even at lower levels of government. Will you allow slavery at the municipal level? No. In American jurisprudence, for example, there is a concept called “incorporation” which means some individual rights trump federalism.

    Therefore, the debate gets reduced to whether being forced to move one’s sorry ass to the voting booth is enough of a violation or not.

    You have taken the stand its not enough of a violation. Fair enough.
    I have taken a stand it is.

  13. @Ranjith

    “there won’t be any punitive action; but there will be some incentives — like, those who voted will get some preference over those who haven’t voted when it comes to availing various services.”

    That is definitely an improvement.

    Now, if they would have an option of “None of the above” it would be an even bigger improvement.

    Yet my basic premise is that if someone does not want to vote for whatever reason, he should not be penalized. We are a republic – not a pure democracy.

    Some of us who feel like it to have a say in how to run the republic. Some of us do not want to avail that opportunity.

    And that is how it should remain in a free country

  14. India as it is has a flawed democracy. IMO any move that can take India towards a more matured and perfect democracy should be welcome.
    Regarding your aprehension that “A non-engaged, apathetic electorate when forced to vote, might vote randomly, whimsically or spoil the ballot “.
    Who are we to judge what peole would vote for?
    One person commented “But if it is being done, there must be an option of “none of the above”. ”
    Similar provision already exists even in general elections, pity some are not aware.

  15. @udayan

    It is always a sign that you have lost the debate, when you indulge in ad hominem attacks.

    You call me and others who oppose compulsory voting an “indulged lot”. I have in fact written a fair bit about taxation issues, and being a moderate libertarian have almost always opposed tax increases. I have also proudly voted whenever I have been in my constituency.

    But even if I was a person who wanted tax increases and did not vote, your attacks remain unwarranted.

  16. @nilu

    People who talk about eugenics while discussing voting shouldn’t go on about extent and scope and suchlike. The simple point is compulsory voting is trivial compared to the everyday subtractions from individual liberties that we suffer.

  17. @sanjay.

    I think you are referring to 49-O. Maybe it is the same as “None of the above”, but I remember it being somewhat different. But I am not sure.

  18. @harsh

    Citing American jurisprudence is neither here nor there. Are you saying that principle applies in India? If not, what’s the point?

    Talking about eugenics or slavery is besides the point. What’s that got to do with a discussion on voting?

  19. @udayan

    I said it is called “incorporation” in American jurisprudence. It might be called something else in Indian. The concept is important, not its nomenclature or genesis.

    My slavery example was about incorporation for Nitin/Arpit. You can ignore it.

    For you, this is the relevant summary. I think it is a grave infringement of liberty. You might think it is not. Fine. We can agree to disagree, right?

    Or should I still expect some name calling 🙂

  20. And, Udayan, just because “bigger” infringments of liberty exist and people might not roll back them easily or even realize that they are infringments in the first place, does not mean that we allow a “smaller” infringement to be also enacted.

    You can still support complusory voting, but giving the above reason is illogical.

  21. @harsh,

    Yes i am refering to 49-O, which can be used by those who want to vote for “None of the Above” as well.

  22. Harsh,

    Wrong. I do not take a normative position. In fact, I explicitly set aside that discussion because it ends up in a fanciful discussion of what ought to be. I’m sure it will be an interesting discussion, but I’m afraid I neither have the inclination, the energy nor the expertise to get into that. Hence the choice of words “constitutional & philosophical reasons apart.”

    Having said that, I’m not framing the issue fancifully or with certitude: it might not be unconstitutional and it has already been enacted, so it’s a real issue not a hypothetical one.

    So you could perhaps oppose the move on constitutional grounds or on other philosophical grounds. Maybe the courts will rule it unconstitutional. Maybe they won’t. I’m merely saying that it’ll be interesting to see what it does to governance. It’s nicely ringfenced so it’s a nice democratic experiment.

  23. Sanjay,

    49-O is not an answer to a fundamental position — I do not want to vote.

    If you want to say the cost of my citizenship is that I should vote by law and cannot have the liberty not to, we have different ideas of political dignity with regards to an individual. I do not intend to give any government the right to set my personal schedule.

    As Harsh said earlier, Federalism does not trump the argument of individual liberty simply because the individual is last unit in that chain — not a state or local government. Not even a street council or a family member for that matter.

  24. Harsh,

    Forgot to add: I agree with Udayan on what he says about American jurisprudence and the bit about slavery.

    Unless it applies to India it doesn’t serve any useful purpose in this discussion. The invocation of slavery is merely the use of a combination of Schopenhauer’s 19th and 32nd tricks. Slavery is neither constitutional nor a subject of this discussion, so it is totally irrelevant.

  25. A non-normative position would have been

    “Compulsory voting is happening. Given that its happening, its results on governance would be interesting to study” With this, I would have fully agreed.

    The moment you said it “should” be allowed, you took a normative stance – notwithstanding your earlier disclaimers.

  26. Slavery was an example of individual infringement. Its sensationalism overshadowed my point, so my bad choice.

    Let me Indianize the example – should municipalities be allowed to ban inter-caste marriage?

  27. And I am not withdrawing the Eugenics example because if the only parameter to allow an experiment is “interest” with its cost being individual liberty — eugenics fits right in there.

  28. Harsh

    The moment you said it “should” be allowed, you took a normative stance – notwithstanding your earlier disclaimers.

    Wrong again. It would have been normative if the statement read “Compulsory voting should be allowed.” But I state that it should be allowed so that we have empirical evidence we can use to take the normative position of whether it should be allowed or not.

  29. Nitin,

    That opinion is normative because that “experiment” will curtail individual rights, and by endorsing the experiment you endorse the curtailment of the individual rights.

    You cannot endorse curtailing individual rights, and then say the curtailment of individual rights is a philosophical issue that is off-topic.

  30. Nitin,

    Your reasoning is funny.

    It does not matter for what reason you endorse X, you still endorsed X. And by endorsing X, you took a normative position

  31. Nitin,

    “When a person calls something—call it R—a reason for doing X, he expresses his acceptance of norms that say to treat R as weighing in favour of doing X. ”

    That’s how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Normative expressivism. In this case your R and X are well defined. Now, please explain how Harsh is wrong.

  32. Harsh,

    Of course, such an experiment will be an infringement of individual freedom, but the edifice of a state (yes, even a republic) is constructed on some infringement of some freedoms. The question of whether and to what extent a freedom can be infringed is answered in the constitution. In this case, I presume (but am not certain) that the constitution allows it.

    If you find the reasoning funny, you still have the uncurtailed freedom to laugh at it.

  33. Now you want to shift the argument to absolutist positions! Did you not say even the ought to was another debate altogether?!

  34. Moreover, Nitin, to address even your specific reason – if you will endorse X based on data of “X-light” (the state-level experiment) then you have already endorsed X from a normative point of view.

    You have only not endorsed it from a positivist point of view, which you will depending on the data of X-light.

    And if the data is also favorable, you will then not reject X. Hence the normative question will not arise in this sub-case.

    Therefore, even in this special case of X-light and X, you have normatively endorsed X and not just X-light.

  35. Just to conclude the discussion from my side – given that it is happening, the econometric analysis of the data should be interesting indeed. Did it lead to better governance?

    But I am afraid to get conclusive trends will take a long time-series and multiple states, so if compulsory voting does happen on a national scale eventually – it will not happen or not not happen based on Nitin’s desire for better development, but on partisan calculations.

  36. @ Nilu,

    Individual liberty can not be unlimited, especially when it is in conflict with larger interest. A society has the right to define fundamental duties, you may call it the cost of enjoying your rights. Everyone can’t have his cake and eat it too.

  37. Cant resist one more comment.

    @Sanjay – you really want to force me to choose between super-egotistical Mamata, India-hating Communists, pseudo-secular Congress, and increasingly regressive BJP in the 2011 Bengal elections?

    Yaar, have some pity. I would vote for anybody who just reads – just reads – INI over those buffoons.

  38. @ Harsh
    >> “you really want to force me to choose between super-egotistical Mamata, India-hating Communists, pseudo-secular Congress, and increasingly regressive BJP in the 2011 Bengal elections?”

    The bill intends to clip the wings of the very parties who despite not deserving to be in power are able to do so, one of the reason being low voter turnout. whether it will achieve that objective or not is debatable, some might say “let’s do it and see”, but citing individual liberty over all else or maintaining status quo will certanly not change anything.

  39. @ Sanjay

    You are right. Citing individual liberty, if loudly enough, will certainly not change current voting laws. And that is what I want!

    But, you can have the last word between us. We both want development and better politics – we may disagree over the means. In addition to that, I put some measures outside those means. You might not.

  40. Sanjay, I agree with you on the fact that individual liberty is a function of a complicated equilibrium between the individual and the state/ society. Which is exactly why the government ideally cannot and practically should not usurp my individual rights. Just as I will not and should not and cannot say I have a right dump mercury on my own land.

  41. You may disagree over the means, but you can help a great deal by giving an alternative which can result in better development and politics without infringing on individual liberties, but i certainly don’t agree with the “means” you want to adopt to stall the change.

  42. Nilu,
    agreed, govt should not and IMO does not usurp anybody’s rights without very good reasons to do so, you’ll find most of the fundamental duties infringing on someones rights, but that’s another debate, though not unrelated, isn’t it?

  43. Things to ponder :

    1. Australia, Switzerland etc. have compulsory voting…and these are pure/evolved democracies .India , on the other hand is a partial democracy and yet to evolve .How does one reach the conclusion that what is beneficial for an evolved democracy is detrimental to a partial one?

    2. does the right to education include the right not to get educated ? ..got it?

    3.How rational is the premise that the 40% people who vote today are doing it rationally ?…if you know the answer, how rational is it to assume that forcing them to vote will spoil the ballot.Agreed ..for a couple of times some people will vote in their ‘resentment’…but do you really think that it would reflect in the third poll??

    4.We guys get a holiday on voting day….a compulsory holiday ..how many of you are opposing that compulsory holiday!??

  44. So is Nitin agreeing with the basic definition of normative expressivism now? In that case will he say he takes his endorsement of the experiment back?

  45. Individual liberty can not be unlimited, especially when it is in conflict with larger interest. A society has the right to define fundamental duties, you may call it the cost of enjoying your rights.

    Who the HELL are you or for that matter any one else to decide “larger” interests ? Who gave you that power/right? And whose larger interests are we talking about here ? i suppose it is yours and is cloaked under garbage like “society”.

    Society does not have “rights”. Individuals do. Your lovely society may one day decide that it will be well served if say a particular caste was restricted to performing one set of duties. like it already has done with casteism.

    The bill intends to clip the wings of the very parties who despite not deserving to be in power are able to do so, one of the reason being low voter turnout. whether it will achieve that objective or not is debatable, some might say “let’s do it and see”, but citing individual liberty over all else or maintaining status quo will certanly not change anything.

    There are solutions to this problem without circumscribing individual liberty.You dont cut your face to spite your nose.

    This blog has opined that if you want to see changes in governance, you may want to compete in elections – local body elections would be better than state or national to begin with. Show leadership and give people your thoughts on how to improve basic governance.Make an effort, whether you succeed or not.

    Remember, not voting in an election goes both ways – you have the freedom to say that you dont want to vote for any one – but at the same time you have to implicitly accept that you cannot complain much about how bad it is. If you want to change the status quo, you cannot remain on the sidelines.

    All of this can be attempted before we start using coercion to force citizens to vote.

    As Fredreick Bastiat reminds us – laws are meant to be DEFENSIVE i.e. defend individual rights. Using the law to coerce citizens against their own free will is a slippery slope to tyranny.

  46. Sanjay,

    Here is my article about anti-defection laws which presents an alternative to revolutionize politics – and by extension, development in our country. link

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