What Is Compulsory Voting?

Compulsory voting occurs when a state or nation requires all of its citizens to vote. In many countries today, voting is required by law. But in most cases, the penalty for not complying is so mild that the term "compulsory" is a bit of a misnomer.

Compulsory Voting Has a Big Impact on Turnout

As one might suspect, compulsory voting can have a big impact on voter turnout, especially on some categories of the electorate. Making voting mandatory tends to bring out demographic groups that are often under-represented in voluntary votes. This often includes:

  • Younger citizens
  • Lower-income citizens
  • Those who are less engaged in the political process

In fact, compulsory voting can make the voices of those groups heard just as loudly as those of citizens who are older, more affluent, and more enmeshed in the process.

As this data from Pew Research shows, voter turnout in countries that have compulsory voting (indicated with an asterisk) tends to be among the highest in the world.

The figures indicate the percentage of registered voters who voted in the election most recent at the time of the research:

  1. Australia*: 90.98%
  2. Belgium*: 89.37%
  3. Denmark: 85.89%
  4. Sweden: 85.81%
  5. Netherlands: 81.93%

On the other hand, voter turnout tends to decline sharply in countries that abandon compulsory voting. In Chile's 2013 elections, voter turnout was 42% -- not even half of what it had been in 2010 when the country still required citizens to vote.

Is It a Crime Not to Vote in Compulsory Voting Countries?

In some countries, it is a crime to skip the polls. Most countries with compulsory voting laws have minor penalties or none at all.

Unenforced Compulsory Voting

Here are some of the countries that have a compulsory voting policy, but don't legally prosecute those who violate it:

  • Bolivia
  • Bulgaria
  • Costa Rica
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Dominican Republic
  • Egypt
  • Gabon
  • Greece
  • Honduras
  • Italy
  • Lebanon
  • Libya
  • Mexico
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Thailand

Some of these countries have what are sometimes called "innocuous sanctions" against non-voters. Those might include an informal form of social scorn that can lead merchants or service providers to refuse to do business with non-voters.

Enforced Compulsory Voting

There are a handful of countries that enforce their compulsory voting laws. Some allow citizens to decline their vote via a formal request. Or, others make exceptions based on age and other factors.

Here are the countries that enforce compulsory voting, and the penalties for not complying:

  • Argentina dictates that non-voters must provide a reasonable explanation for not voting. That person may also be subject to a fine about equivalent to less than a dollar.
  • Australia enacted compulsory voting in 1924. In a different twist, Australians are legally required to go to their local polling place but can decline to vote once they sign in. Citizens who don't show up at the polling place may face a fine between the equivalent of $14-34. If they don't pay that fine, they might face jail time.
  • Belgium has the world's oldest mandatory voting system, dating back to 1924. Citizens over 18 receive a small fine if they don't vote. They may face jail time if they fail to vote in at least four elections.
  • Brazil has a law that voting is voluntary for citizens between 16 and 18 and over 70, and for those who cannot read. Everyone else must vote and will face a small fine for not doing so.
  • Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Nauru, Uruguay, and Turkey require an explanation to not vote and impose a small fine if the explanation is not reasonable.
  • North Korea's elections generally only offer voters one candidate. Abstaining or casting a dissenting vote is considered treason.
  • Peru levies a small fine for those who fail to vote. For months following elections, Peruvians are also required to carry a stamped voting card as proof that they voted. Without that stamp, citizens cannot get some goods and services from public offices.
  • Singapore's laws state that non-voters are taken off the country's voter register until they reapply and offer a reason for not voting. If the reason is found to be not reasonable, the citizen must pay a fee to be put back on the register. Non-voters in Singapore are also barred from being a candidate in a Presidential or Parliamentary election.
  • Switzerland requires voting only in the Canton of Schaffhausen. Citizens there are subject to a fine equivalent to about $3 for not complying.

Similar to Brazil's law, some countries offer exemptions to their compulsory voting laws. Those might include illness, military duty, or religious reasons.

Compulsory Voting in the United States

The United States has never come close to establishing compulsory voting. In the 18th century, Georgia and Virginia had laws imposing fines for not voting, but they do not appear to have ever enforced those laws. North Dakota (in 1898) and Massachusetts (in 1918) amended their constitutions to allow for compulsory voting, but neither state has ever passed such a law.

That doesn't mean the topic doesn't come up here, though. In fact, a policy in Ohio that purges some non-voters from voter rolls was the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case.

Many prominent North American leaders have spoken in favor of some form of compulsory voting. Former United States President, Barack Obama, said it would encourage non-voters like young adults and minorities to make their presence felt at the polls. Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made a similar argument.

In many other countries, compulsory voting remains an ongoing topic of debate. The nation of Cyprus abandoned its mandatory voting law only recently in 2017. Learn more about some of the main pros and cons of compulsory voting.

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