Making voting complusory

As Americans mull over Clinton or Trump option on November 8 this year, focus is now shifting to whether this election will attract a higher turnout than ever in the past considering the two idiosyncrasies they are faced with.

The US has a history of low voter turnout compared to other developed democracies. A global report on voter turnout carried by International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) focusing on elections conducted between 1945 and 2001 in 170 countries ranked Malawi on position 30 while the US fell on position 120.

The turnout in the 2012 US presidential election was 53.6%, based on 129.1 million votes cast and an estimated voting-age population of just under 241 million. However, the percentage rises to 66.6 if calculated against registered voters. Malawi had a turnout of 70.1 percent in the 2014 elections measuring on votes cast against registered voters.

In both countries registration and voting is voluntary and it is the responsibility of the citizen to register. Turnout is really weird in non-presidential elections. In Malawi the turnout during by-elections has been hovering around 25 percent while in the US it is less than 40 percent. Stakeholders have always raised concerns over the statistics and today we focus on whether making voting compulsory would improve the statistics.

Alarmed by a decline in voter turnout to less than 60 percent in the early 1920s, Australia adopted a law in 1924 requiring all citizens to present themselves at the polling place on Election Day. Today turnout has improved in Australia to the fact that the International IDEA ranked first the kangaroo country on voter turnout. Apart from making voting mandatory, Australia has gone ahead to impose fines for no show ups.

Some of the other countries that introduced mandatory voting laws include Belgium in 1892, Argentina in 1914 and Australia in 1924. There are also examples of countries such as Venezuela and the Netherlands which at one time in their history practiced compulsory voting but have since abolished it.

Advocates of compulsory voting argue that decisions made by democratically elected governments are more legitimate when higher proportions of the population participate. If democracy is government by the people, presumably this includes all people, and then it is every citizen's responsibility to elect their representatives.

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. Is a government really more legitimate if the high voter turnout is against the will of the voters?

While it would be possible for the US to implement compulsory voting because of its systems and financial muscle, it may be difficult in Malawi to justify huge expenditures of maintaining and enforcing compulsory voting laws. There will be requirement for systematic follow-up of each non-voting citizen and implement sanctions against them.

Studies somewhere have also proved that forcing the population to vote results in an increased number of invalid and blank votes compared to countries that have no compulsory voting laws.

Another consequence of mandatory voting is the possible high number of "random votes". Voters who are voting against their free will may opt for a candidate at random, particularly the top candidate on the ballot. The voter does not care whom they vote for as long as they fulfill the law.

So although the compulsory route may seem appetizing to increase voter turnout there are process bottlenecks to its actualization in Malawi.