ERRE Committee Report
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One of the issues that the Committee studied as part of its mandate was mandatory (also called compulsory) voting. As noted by former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the term “mandatory voting” is a bit of a misnomer, as in jurisdictions with “mandatory voting” there is no requirement to actually cast a ballot for any candidate, but rather to present one’s self to vote. Indeed, in numerous jurisdictions one of the options on the ballot is to mark “none of the candidates” (a variant could be “I do not wish to vote”). In other words, “mandatory voting” can be more accurately described as “compulsory attendance at the polls.”
Mandatory voting legislation exists in a number of countries, including Australia, Belgium, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Brazil. The 23 countries that currently have legislation providing for mandatory voting at the national level take a range of approaches in terms of enforcement, with the possibility of modest fines being the most common form of sanction being applied (for example in Australia the fine for not presenting one’s self to vote without a valid excuse, such as absence or illness, is $20AUS).
Generally the arguments both in favour and against mandatory voting speak to two of the principles set out in the Committee’s mandate. First, whether the proposed measure would increase (or hinder) engagement (principle #2), by encouraging voting and participation in the democratic process, including offering opportunities for the inclusion of underrepresented groups in the political process And second whether it would increase (or hinder) accessibility and inclusiveness (principle #3), by supporting access by all eligible voters regardless of physical or social condition.
In exploring mandatory voting, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand suggested the Committee do the following:
I would encourage the committee to pay attention to several considerations during its study, including the provision of a compliance mechanism through sanctions or positive incentives, whether or not there should be exceptions for certain groups of voters, and of course acceptance by Canadians.
Indeed, the considerations raised by Mr. Mayrand came up time and again throughout the Committee’s deliberations.
Proponents of mandatory voting generally consider voting to be a civic duty (such as jury duty or the requirement to complete the census), and emphasize that voters are not required to vote for a candidate but rather to turn out to vote. The main arguments put forward by supporters of mandatory voting are that:
Critics of mandatory voting generally consider voting to be a “right, not an obligation”, to be exercised at will, or that it is even “disrespectful of citizens.” As elaborated below, some note that while mandatory voting would increase turnout, it would not address the underlying issues of why certain citizens are currently not voting. Others add that mandatory voting does not in and of itself address the issue of educating the electorate to enable citizens to make more informed choices on political issues.
Finally, a number of witnesses who appeared before the Committee emphasized the relationship between mandatory voting and ensuring that voting is as accessible as possible. Indeed, various witnesses expressed concern that introducing mandatory voting, without at the same time ensuring accessibility and providing for a variety of exceptions, could have the perverse effect of penalizing groups already underrepresented in the political process, in particular Canadians with disabilities, Indigenous Canadians, and low-income Canadians.
This range of opinion was well expressed by the 22,247 respondents to the Committee’s e-consultation. A majority of respondents strongly agreed (36.2%) or agreed (14.1%) with the statement “Canadians should be required to cast a ballot in a federal election (this could include spoiling a ballot)”:
Canadians should be required to cast a ballot in a federal election Scale: 1 (Strongly Disagree) – 5 (Strongly Agree); NA
However, a majority also strongly disagreed (43%) or disagreed (11.8%) with the statement that “Canadians should be fined or receive some other penalty for failing to cast a ballot in a federal election without acceptable justification (e.g. illness, absence)”:
Canadians should be penalized for failing to cast a ballot in a federal election Scale: 1 (Strongly Disagree) – 5 (Strongly Agree); NA
Instead, a majority of respondents strongly agreed (41.9%) or agreed (15.5%) with the statement that “incentives should be put in place to encourage Canadians to cast a ballot in a federal election”:
Incentives should be put in place to encourage Canadians to cast a ballot Scale: 1 (Strongly Disagree) – 5 (Strongly Agree); NA
During its study the Committee heard from Tom Rogers, the Electoral Commissioner of the federal Australian Electoral Commission. He explained that both enrolment (registration) and voting is compulsory in Australia:
In Australia it is compulsory to enrol and to vote in federal elections. Compulsory enrolment at the federal level for Australian citizens was introduced in 1918, followed by compulsory voting in 1924.
At the last election we estimate that about 95% of all eligible electors were enrolled. That's 15.6 million people. That is the largest number of electors we've ever had enrolled and probably the most complete electoral roll we've ever had in Australia's history. It's the responsibility of every individual to update their own enrolment details; however, we also have a system of federal direct enrolment and update, and that assists the process. We use trusted third party data, such as driver's licence information, to enrol or update an elector's details.
Under current legislation there is no avenue, really, for successful prosecution of eligible electors who are not enrolled. The reason I say this is that enrolment is an absolute defence for any charge of not enrolling, so if we go down the process of taking someone to court, quite often they'll essentially enrol on the courthouse steps, which is then an absolute defence for non-enrolment.
Mr. Rogers noted that mandatory voting and registration are perceived as being a normal part of the culture:
Compulsory voting and enrolment is seen as a normal part of Australian political culture. There is lots of evidence to suggest continued support for compulsory voting: in 2013, the last time we did surveys, about 70% or thereabouts of the population indicated support for compulsory voting. At the most recent federal election, which we've just had, turnout was around 90%, but we'll have to confirm that over the coming weeks as we finish the processes with that election.
Finally, he explained the penalties for not going to vote, and how they are quite limited in scope and application:
Under our system of compulsory voting, those enrolled electors who did not vote are sent a non-voter letter. It requires the electors to either respond and provide a valid excuse for not voting or pay a very small $20 fine. A small number of those voters who don't pay the fine are then prosecuted, and I think we went through a full prosecution of about 3,000 people at the last election.
The Committee also heard from electoral reform advocate Anna Keenan, originally from Australia and involved in the electoral reform process in P.E.I.. With regard to mandatory voting, she expressed her sense of surprise upon her arrival in Canada that voting in Canada was “optional” and explained her support for mandatory voting as being rooted in how it changes campaigning:
I loved mandatory voting. I found it shocking that it was optional to vote when I moved to other countries. If it's the norm in the country you're from, it's quite surprising that the majority of countries in the world have it be optional.
The reason that I am a huge fan of mandatory voting is because of the way that it changes campaigning. I had never heard of a “get out the vote” campaign before I left Australia. Rather than a campaign being about why you should come out and vote and risking the appeal to very populist or extreme positions that can attract real fanatics on certain issues to come out and vote, everybody is already going to come out and vote. The campaigning becomes a lot more about the issues and the policies.
She added that a challenge with “optional” voting is that one never knows why someone did not vote. She suggested that introducing mandatory voting could actually help citizens express their disengagement or disappointment with the political system:
On the topic of optional and mandatory voting, one of the things that I see as a problem with optional voting is that for the people who don't vote, you don't know why they haven't voted. You don't know if it's because they are disengaged or because they are expressing a protest vote and saying, “None of the above; you're not good enough.” I would propose that if you are to introduce mandatory voting in Canada you could potentially also consider the inclusion of a “none of the above” option on ballots for people to express an active protest vote.
There have also been instances in some Australian elections where there was an active campaign for people to drop empty ballots in the box. If you turned up at the ballot box and you got checked off the list, you voted, but people dropped in empty ballots as a form of protest. If you are to introduce mandatory voting, it does need to be done in such a way that you make it clear to people that they are not being forced to choose, but you're making it mandatory for people to engage and learn and educate themselves, to show up. It's making it a citizen duty.
Multiple witnesses who testified before the Committee emphasized that in considering whether to make voting mandatory, attention must first be paid to making voting as accessible as possible. As well, special care must be given to ensure that any move towards mandatory voting should contain appropriate exceptions so as not to negatively impact Canadians who are already underrepresented in the electoral system – including Canadians with disabilities, older and younger Canadians, Indigenous Canadians, and low-income Canadians.
One important element of accessibility is making voting as “easy” and “attractive” as possible. As Ruth Dassonneville noted in her presentation to the Committee, which focused exclusively on mandatory voting:
For sure whenever voting is compulsory, is mandatory in a country, voting should be made easy as well. I think the Canadian context is a great case of a country where voting is relatively easy. Already though, more measures could be taken to make it even easier.
Maryantonett Flumian, who suggested that mandatory voting should only be considered “as a last resort to address low voter participation,” indicated that “a number of other measures could be implemented” to “improve voter turnout over time,” namely making voting more user-friendly:
Simply put, if voting is more user-friendly and highly accessible, more people may be likely to vote. Everything possible should be done to facilitate voting, from registration to the actual act of voting. With modern information technologies, many impediments to voting or things that make voting more difficult could be lifted or greatly reduced.
Another prerequisite to mandatory voting would be ensuring that the voting process is as accessible as possible to Canadians with disabilities. For example, as Diane Bergeron, on behalf of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, noted, currently Canadians who are blind do not have access to a secret ballot (as assistance is required to check the ballot):
Although CNIB does not take a position on mandatory voting, I think it's important to remember that if you are not going to make the system 100% accessible to every Canadian, exceptions need to be put in place. I don't think it's right to tell me that I have to go vote, and then tell me, “Oh, but by the way you're not allowed to do it in secret because we don't have this accessible.”
I truly believe that if we're going to make voting mandatory, then we also need to make sure every person has the same rights in the voting system going forward. If we are going to do mandatory voting, then I don't think I should have to have somebody with me in the polling station who I do not know and who could mark my ballot for me. I think I should be able to do that independently. I should be able to check it myself to make sure that I haven't unintentionally spoiled my vote, and also to make sure that it's in secret. If I don't have those rights upheld, then I don't think I should be forced to go through the same process as everyone else. If the voting process is made completely 100% accessible to everybody, then that would be different.
She concluded by emphasizing that any mandatory voting regime should include exceptions to ensure that Canadians who have difficulties accessing the vote are not unduly penalized:
I truly don't believe that mandatory voting should be put in place without the exceptions to allow people to have the right to back out if they are not being considered equally or treated equally within that process.
The notion that Canadians with disabilities should not be made worse off by reform was further emphasized by April D’Aubin, on behalf of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD):
During the social security review process conducted by then minister Lloyd Axworthy, CCD adopted the principle that people with disabilities should not be made worse off by reform. Some individuals with disabilities may be prevented from voting due to barriers that they have no control over. For example, there may be a lack of accessible transportation to the polls. A person who relies on the services of a personal care attendant may find themselves unable to get out of bed on voting day because their attendant did not show up. A polling station may be inaccessible. It would add insult to injury for them to then have to pay a tax for not voting.
Louis Sebert, speaking in Yellowknife, NWT, expressed concern with any proposed penalties for not voting, noting that such penalties could disproportionately impact those already in need:
Financial penalties for not voting would fall most harshly on those residents already struggling with the day-to-day reality of being unemployed or underemployed with no economic prospects, a far higher cost of living, and heavy reliance on government programs.
As well, Paul Okalik, Member of the Legislative Assembly in Nunavut, noted that elections could take place during the hunting season, which would make observing mandatory voting requirements difficult:
That's the concern I have with mandatory requirements is that it can fall in the middle of our hunting season, in the middle of something rather important for our family, so making it mandatory would be difficult for us in that way.
As well, it was observed that some members of First Nations communities do not, as a matter of principle, vote federally, and as such should not be penalized should mandatory voting be introduced.
The primary argument in support of mandatory voting (other than it being perceived as a duty) is that the higher turnout brought about by mandatory voting makes government more legitimate, and reduces the inequalities between who turns out to vote and who does not. As Ruth Dassonneville explained:
First of all, it [higher turnout] is an important goal because it increases democratic legitimacy. A government that's been elected based on high levels of turnout could more legitimately claim that it's representing the citizens.
Second, and this is really the crucial point, high turnout levels should reduce inequalities in who turns out to vote and who does not. The political science literature is quite clear that the less well-off are less likely to turn out to vote. So lower-educated people, lower-income people, lower social class citizens are less likely to turn out to vote. Compelling them, mandating them, to turn out to vote will effectively reduce those inequalities. I think reducing those inequalities is important because it changes the dynamics. It would make sure that parties would actually care about those less well-off citizens. If parties know that the less well off, the low-income groups, low social class citizens are not turning out to vote or are hard to mobilize, then they have no reason whatsoever to care about the interests of those citizens. Compulsory voting would change that dynamic.
However, those opposed to mandatory voting emphasized that increasing voter turnout could mask the decline in civic engagement that is currently reflected in varying turnout. As Don Desserud noted:
My concern is that we're missing the point. Yes, voting is a civic duty and is itself a form of civic engagement, but it's also a measure, a reflection of the engagement of the community. In other words, people are not voting for other reasons than simply because they haven't been nudged, and if we have mandatory voting we risk overlooking those or masking those.
Finally, some have suggested that in addition to making voting more accessible, mandatory voting should be encouraged through the use of “carrots” rather than “sticks,” as Matt Risser noted, “I would argue that you should exhaust all carrots before you move to sticks.” Fellow witness Christopher Majka agreed with Mr. Risser, indicating that “Like him, I think carrots are much more interesting to wield than sticks. I think there are many things within our power to incentivize democratic participation.”
Indeed, the idea of offering a “carrot” rather than a “stick” to encourage voting was first put forward by Nelson Wiseman, Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto:
Can I just say something about mandatory voting? I see voting more as a right than as a duty, but I'm not opposed to its being mandatory. I just don't think it's in the interests of most MPs to do it.
Instead of a penalty, as in Australia—where, incidentally, voter turnout isn't much above 80%, I think.... In New Zealand, where they don't have it, they've had elections in which turnout has been as high as 98%. Rather than a penalty, which I believe you can get out of if you have an excuse, offer them a carrot. Parliament has introduced so many boutique tax credits. Give them $20 or $30. Right now, it costs about $30 for every vote that's cast.
As noted above, the idea of using an incentive to encourage voting was supported by a majority of respondents to the Committee’s online consultation.
Over the course of its study, some Committee members became increasingly impressed by some of the arguments put forward to make voting attendance mandatory. In particular, some members appreciated how mandatory voting would change campaigning, altering the focus of a campaign from encouraging people to vote to campaigning more on issues and policies. Some Committee members also valued the observation made that introducing compulsory voting would make voting more equal by ensuring input from those who traditionally do not vote, and giving political parties the incentive to reach out to them (for example by designing policies).
However, some members of the Committee also appreciated the argument that the right to vote includes the right not to vote, or even to present one’s self at the polls, and that the decision to do so should be made freely. As well, the Committee recognizes that introducing mandatory voting would not in itself resolve the root causes of low voter turnout or engagement, and might mask them. Finally, the Committee acknowledges the general discomfort expressed with penalizing people for not participating in the electoral process, particularly those with a disability.
Given the forgoing, the Committee does not recommend mandatory voting at this time. Rather, the Committee agrees that a variety of measures, discussed in Chapter 8, could be considered to improve voter turnout over time. In particular, the Committee supports initiatives to make voting more user-friendly and accessible, including improving education and outreach around why it is important to vote, to facilitate voting and inclusion in the National Register of Electors.
The Committee recommends that mandatory voting not be implemented at this time.
Compulsory voting is, first of all, a misnomer, or at least it should be made a misnomer. No system should be contemplated whereby electors must choose only among candidates. That is unthinkable. There needs to be the right to have a choice in the marking of the ballot. “I do not wish to vote” should be one of the choices, okay? In this way you would no longer have compulsory voting, but compulsory attendance at the polls. You have free choice. If you don't like any of them, you don't even have to say you don't like any of them. If you're not aware of the issues, you don't have to be aware of the issues, and you can just say, “I do not wish to vote”, or words to that effect.
 Belgium was the first country to introduce mandatory voting legislation, in 1892, while Australia has arguably the best-known mandatory voting system (first introduced in 1915 by the State of Queensland and adopted nationally in 1924).
 ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 31 August 2016, 1825 (Dominic Vézina, Strategic Advisor, Institut du Nouveau Monde): “The fourth reform that we are proposing is to make voting compulsory, with the option of casting a blank ballot. To emphasize the fact that voting is not only a right but also a duty, we believe that consideration should be given to compulsory voting.”
What are the effects of making voting compulsory or the participation compulsory? Obviously, it has an impact on turnout. We know from comparative research that turnout levels are considerably higher in countries where voting is compulsory, in particular, if the law is actually enforced, if there's some form of punishment and that punishment is enforced. For example, in the Australian case, non-voters pay a $20 fine for not voting. For example, in elections worldwide since 2010 in voluntary voting countries, turnout was at 63%, while in compulsory voting countries where the law was enforced, it was at 85%, so there's a huge impact.
ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 23 August 2016, 0950 (Nicole Goodman, Director, Centre for e-Democracy, Assistant Professor, Munk School of Global Affairs, as an Individual): “Compulsory voting laws show a much larger change [in turnout], with an average increase in turnout of 7% to 16% in advanced democracies. However, even in places where mandatory voting is already established, such as Australia, there is talk of further improving turnout. Voter participation is complex, and no one institutional reform will be the silver bullet.”
 ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 3 October 2016, 1340 (Kevin Dobie, Director, Quebec Community Groups Network): “I'm a member of the board of directors of the Quebec Community Groups Network, the QCGN.… The QCGN is opposed to mandatory voting. Voting is a charter right, not an obligation. The idea of the state forcing a citizen to exercise a right runs counter to our democratic heritage.”
ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 3 October 2016, 1420 (Stephen Thompson, Director, Policy, Research and Public Affairs, Quebec Community Groups Network):
The foundation of our opposition to mandatory voting is that it's the [G]overnment imposing on the electorate or on its citizens an obligation to do something. If there's a box on a form where you click and say that you're not voting, you're obliged to be there to fill in that box. What right does government have to tell me that I have to go to a place to check a box that says I'm not voting? A right is inherent to a citizen. It belongs to me. The state can't come in and tell me how I'm going to use that right, how to exercise that right, or even if I should be exercising that right.
Professor Macfarlane added in his submission to the Committee (Excerpts from Emmett Macfarlane, “Submission to the House of Commons Electoral Reform Committee,” 23 August 2016): “23. Mandatory voting also has rights implications, in that it would clearly infringe freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and possibly the Charter’s democratic rights. It is possible a mandatory voting law might be upheld as a reasonable limitation on those rights, but the committee should seriously consider whether the largely symbolic benefits outweigh those costs.”
 ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 22 August 2016, 1940 (Christian Dufour): “Personally, I think mandatory voting is disrespectful of citizens. It infantilises them. I think citizens have the right not to vote. They do not have to be perfect model citizens.”
 Appendix F, “E-Consultation on Electoral Reform, Summary of Responses”, Table 32 and Figure 29.
 Ibid., Table 33 and Figure 30.
 Ibid., Table 34 and Figure 31.
 Ibid., 1915.
For example, we have a permanent electronic national voters list; if only it were available at all polling stations across the country in real time. This is a no-brainer in this day and age. We might have a vote-anywhere policy that would facilitate the exercise of the franchise, notably by students who leave their permanent place of residence to attend college or university just around election time, if we stick to the current cycle. People could vote wherever they were on polling day, rather than having to return to their place of registration or having to change their registration to their new residence in order to be able to vote on polling day. The lifting of such administrative burdens might give a particular boost to voting in marginalized groups in Canada, who may benefit from an increase in accessibility to voting, and among youth, since it's critical to retain the large increase in first-time young voters in the last federal election so that they continue over their lives to perform their civic duty. Another example is limiting vouching to one per person. This has brought an undue restriction on the administrative flexibility of the voting process that may have had an impact, in particular for elderly voters in seniors' residences, where it was customary for staff to vouch for several residents who lacked identification, as well as in [I]ndigenous communities. Stopping this practice may have been a remedy to a non-problem.
 Ibid., 1620.
The following day in Toronto, John Rae, currently the vice-chair of the CCD, indicated that he was opposed to mandatory voting as “I do believe the idea of mandatory voting would be disproportionately a problem for the disabled community.” ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 21 September 2016, 2005 (John Rae, as an Individual).
 Mr. Sebert currently serves as the Minister of Justice, Attorney General, Minister of Lands, Minister Responsible for the Northwest Territories Power Corporation, and the Minister Responsible for Public Engagement and Transparency for the Government of the Northwest Territories.
 ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 6 October 2016, 1820 (Don Desserud, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Prince Edward Island, as an Individual). Professor Desserud then suggests that: “people don't vote because they have come over time to see elections as not making a whole lot of difference. In other words, they see the results as being little different from what they were before or they don't see that the choices are valid to them, or they don't think that their vote counts. A substantial number of people have been turned off by the electoral system.”
See also excerpts from Emmett Macfarlane, “Submission to the House of Commons Electoral Reform Committee”, 23 August 2016:
However, it is not apparent that voter turnout is the problem rather than a symptom of a set of problems: alienation from the political process or politics generally, and apathy. There is not much compelling evidence that mandatory voting increases voter knowledge, or addresses the root problems that contribute to low voter turnout. As a result, instituting mandatory voting would be treating a symptom of a problem (or set of problems) rather than the disease.
 Paul G. Thomas, Professor Emeritus, Political Studies, University of Manitoba, “Compulsory Voting: The Pros and Cons, Submission to the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform” 18 July 2016 : “CV is not a panacea for what ails democracy and reasonable people can disagree over just how healthy or unhealthy Canadian democracy is compared to most countries in the world.”
 Appendix F, “E-Consultation on Electoral Reform, Summary of Responses,” Table 34, Figure 31.