Make voting compulsory

August 15, 2011


PAKISTAN has an electoral democracy but not a representative democracy. Post-1971, in eight general elections, the voter turnout has almost always been less than 50 per cent of registered voters.

Or one out of every two voters has never chosen a candidate or a party. Compulsory voting alone will redress this enormous gap between the unknown truth and the known election results.

If casting a ballot becomes as obligatory as possession of a national identity card is today, every adult citizen will establish a direct, physical interaction with the democratic process. The act of participation will reduce the alienation and sense of distance presently felt between at least half the population and the political democratic system. Even for those who vote and still feel alienated, the knowledge that the election result is the reflection of the totality of adult society will help shrink the cleavage.

When virtually every adult votes, democracy will become truly representative of public opinion. At present, election results are often sceptically viewed as being representative of mainly tribal, ethnic, linguistic, and feudal vested interests.

Or of religious alignments, or individual candidates’ influences. The results of the ‘must-vote’ may merely extend or magnify existing patterns. But then again, no one knows for sure what the whole electorate actually prefers.

When every adult votes, the results will eliminate forever the historic and ongoing absurdity of the present first-past-the-post system. Candidates who often receive a small percentage of the votes cast — leave alone a fraction of the total registered votes — become the winners because they have simply won the highest votes amongst all candidates.

For example, an average National Assembly constituency may have 300,000 registered voters. Say only about 100,000 or one-third come to vote, as often happens. There are, say, six candidates. The top one receives 30,000 votes. The next five get, in descending order, 25,000 and 20,000 and 15,000 and 10,000 and 5,000 votes. Together, the losing five candidates get 75,000 votes i.e. more than double the number polled by the winning candidate. Yet the person getting only 10 per cent of the registered votes and only 30 per cent of the cast votes — minority numbers in both cases — gets to represent the total of 300,000 voters. And the finishing touch is that 75,000 voters have actually voted against the winning candidate who got only 30,000 votes! No wonder most voters and citizens feel entirely disconnected with the candidates who are their official elected representatives.

To ensure a genuinely representative result in each constituency we need an authentic-majority principle. Only that candidate becomes a winner who secures 51 per cent of the registered votes. If no one obtains this result in the first round, a second or third round is held to determine the majority winner.

Compulsory voting will at once make this ideal a practical possibility.

Similarly, the real level of public support for political parties will become crystal clear. Currently, parties which obtain only about one-third of the cast vote, e.g. PPP, PML-Q, PML-N, and about only one-sixth of the registered vote acquire the aura of being ‘majority’ and ‘dominant’ parties. Whereas neither has the majority of voters voted for them nor have they secured a majority even of the votes cast.

Mandatory voting will oblige the state and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to ensure that all adult voters, especially those residing in remote areas, or in locations where transport is difficult or expensive, have convenient access to polling stations and polling booths. This writer recalls being present as an election observer for the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Namibia in 1989 when mobile voting stations on trucks and buses reached the doorsteps of villagers and residents of small towns who were voting for the first time, and did so with delight.

The most important beneficiaries of compulsory voting will be the women of Pakistan. Many in the rural areas are either not permitted by their men to go out to vote, or certain political parties conspire to prevent them from voting. Or conditions en route even in urban areas between homes and polling stations are not conducive for them. Or they are not even registered, to begin with. Compulsory voting will enfranchise all adult women. And even though it will take time before each woman is able to vote without the influence of husband, father, tribe and clan, a major step towards her empowerment would have been taken.

As about half the expenses by candidates on election campaigns is incurred on polling day — to transport voters, provide food, refreshment etc. — compulsory voting would significantly reduce such costs and related corruptive practices such as underreporting to evade legal limits on expenses. The state and the ECP would assume the cost and responsibility to either bring voters to polling stations or take mobile polling stations to them.

To cope with more than double the turnout of voters, polling could be spread over two to three days.

More than 30 countries around the world have constitutional or legal provisions to facilitate compulsory voting. These range from Australia to Argentina, from Singapore to Greece. At least 12 countries enforce this provision. Voters who wilfully abstain can be penalised by a variety of measures. These include fines (e.g. in Turkey about $10), non-issuance/non-renewal of passports (Brazil), withholding of monthly salary for three months (Bolivia).

A principal argument advanced against compulsory voting is that forcing a person to vote is violative of freedom of choice. But the obligation to be a responsible citizen far outweighs the loss of a ‘negative’ freedom i.e. that of choosing apathy and indifference over engagement and commitment. To address such reluctance, ballot papers could include the option: ‘none of the above’.

During a meeting of a Pildat (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency) electoral reform group with Prime Minister Gilani in March 2010, this writer in his individual capacity suggested the introduction of compulsory voting. The head of government instantly endorsed the idea. He asked officials present to ascertain its feasibility. Now, over 16 months later as new, more accurate electoral rolls are being prepared, it is time to develop a consensus about this measure along with other electoral reforms.

Though the political scene may remain in flux, compulsory voting will build a stable and sustained democracy while strengthening democratic values and practices.

The writer is a former senator and federal minister.