While co-blogger Derek Antoine has recently argued that « we need to stop talking about mandatory voting, » it would appear that Barack Obama is not reading Policy Options. (I trust that Dan Gardner, our editor, is working on that one!) In the wake of Mr. Obama’s comments, that conversation has been rekindled in the United States, producing a number of blog posts by scholars whose views I find persuasive, and which are worth looking at for those interested in the subject.

The chronologically last of these posts, at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, is probably the best place to start. In it, Jason Brennan, the co-author of a book on the topic of compulsory voting, summarizes a variety of arguments in favour, and a couple against, making voting mandatory ”• an idea to which he is firmly opposed. The other posts examine some of these arguments in greater detail.

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin, who had already criticized mandatory voting proposals in the past, has argued that « making voting mandatory is likely to do more harm than good, » although perhaps not a very great amount of harm. Prof. Somin’s argument focus on the problem of political ignorance, which he has studied in great detail ”• and which, as I have explained elsewhere, is a big problem in Canada as well. The people who don’t vote tend to be even more ignorant than those who do (not that those are much good either). Without repeating his arguments here, I will highlight just one of them, which I haven’t seen addressed in the Canadian debate. One consequence of forcing them to the polls, Prof. Somin suggests, will be an even greater effect of money, and specifically money spent on televised ads, on politics, because « relatively ignorant voters are more likely to be influenced by simplistic 30 second ads. »

For his part, prof. Brennan takes on what he calls the « Representativeness Argument for Compulsory Voting, » according to which it is important to force people to vote because this is the only way in which the electorate will have the same demographic makeup as the population, and the interests of groups who tend to stay away from the polls are not marginalized. Prof. Brennan argues that not only is it not true that, as this argument assumes, voters base their decisions on self-interest, which would make it important to protect the marginalized against the depredations of the majority, but the current non-voters are likely to be less informed, and thus less likely correctly to identify where their self-interest lies anyway.

Prof. Brennan also points out, as does prof. Somin in a subsequent post, that while the left often favours mandatory voting because it assumes that the current non-voters belong to its natural constituencies among the poor and the marginalized, the actual partisan effects of mandatory voting seem to be quite small. But to the extent they are noticeable at all, they seem to favour not only an expanded role for the state, but also a less tolerant one, and one inconsistent with what even left-leaning economists think best. (Of course, one might respond to this with a vox populi, vox dei argument, but at least, one should be honest about this.)

There you are. As I said, I find the arguments made by profs. Brennan and Somin quite compelling, but I mostly just wanted to share them with readers.

Leonid Sirota
Leonid Sirota teaches constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Law, McGill University and the New York University School of Law. His main interests are Canadian constitutional law, other areas of public law and legal theory.

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