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The Australian National University

Lachlan Umbers, Compulsory Voting: A Defence

Date and time

Tue, 12/09/2017 - 15:30 - 17:30


Coombs Seminar Room A

Turnout is in decline in established democracies around the world. Where, in the mid-1800s, 70%- 80% of eligible voters regularly participated in US Presidential elections, turnout has averaged just 56% since 1972. Average turnout in general elections in the UK has fallen from 76.64% during the period 1945-1992, to 64.68% since 1997. Average turnout in Canadian federal elections has fallen from 74.52% during the period 1940-1979, to 62.5% since 2000. For most democrats, these numbers are a cause for alarm. ‘Rule by the people’ looks far less attractive with an effective electorate of only 60% of the population. Compulsory voting is among the most effective means of raising turnout. However, compulsory voting is also controversial. Most of us think that coercion may only be employed against the citizenry if it is backed by a justification of the right kind. Opponents of compulsory voting charge that no such justification is available. This paper resists this line of argument in two ways. First, I offer an argument from free-riding which, though gestured towards by others, and widely criticised, has yet to be defended in any depth. Second, I consider a range of objections to compulsory voting as such, arguing that none succeeds.

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