Saturday, 13 September 2008

Is Compulsory Voting a Contradiction in Terms?

Today was Election Day in New South Wales for local councils. As usual, we were warned that if we did not vote, we would have to pay a fine ($55).

This compulsory voting business has always puzzled me. It reminds me of the old joke about the politician who said, "If I'm elected, everyone in the country will be free to do what they please. And those who don't will be made to do it."

But now I'm beginning to think compulsory voting is a good thing, and the turnaround in my opinion has been gradual.

When I first arrived in Australia and learnt that voting was not just a right but also a duty, I was indignant. I think of myself as being fairly conscious of civil rights, and have always keenly followed news items that deal with rights.

Just a few years earlier in India, there was a well-known case of a man who had attempted suicide. He was arrested under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code which made attempted suicide a crime. Indian law is based on 19th century British jurisprudence. While the Brits have since moved on, India remains stuck in a judicial time warp. I found it abhorrent that attempted suicide could be viewed as a crime, and was gratified when Justice Hansaria of the Supreme Court made history by ruling that Section 309 was unconstitutional. The Indian constitution (a much later and more enlightened document compared to the rest of Indian jurisprudence) upheld the right to life as a fundamental right, and the wise judge noted that "the right to live implied the negative right not to live", otherwise the right was meaningless. (I don't know what happened to the poor defendant after that. I hope he received counselling and psychiatric help.)

Disappointingly, a larger bench of the Supreme Court later reversed that decision and upheld the constitutional validity of Section 309. I suspect that questions of euthanasia (always a tricky subject) got mixed up with the issue of suicide and caused a judicial retreat to a safer, more defensible position.

In any case, applying Justice Hansaria's original logic (which resonated very strongly with me), I thought the Australian rule on compulsory voting was a major contradiction. Doesn't the right to vote imply the right not to vote?

But here's the upside of the obligation, and it has taken a few years to sink in.

A major problem that plagues a democracy like India's is bogus voting. Voter ID cards are a very recent phenomenon (and they have their own downsides in terms of privacy and government control, as any civil rights activist will tell you). There were no voter ID cards when I was an eligible voter. I remember that we had to go to the polling booths early to cast our votes if we wanted to prevent someone else from voting in our names.

The most breathtaking example to me (of what can only be called a mockery of the process) was when a neighbour of ours went to the polling booth in the afternoon to find that someone had already voted in her name. She then barefacedly asked the polling officer if she could vote in my wife's name, as she knew for a fact that my wife was out of town and wouldn't be voting. Even more surprising is the fact that he let her! It just goes to show that the problem was so endemic that even a polling officer found this a reasonable request.

Such a situation could only occur because voting in India is not compulsory. There would be an outcry if everyone turned up to vote and some of them found that they were marked as having already voted. That would automatically put an end to bogus voting. In contrast, Australians probably wouldn't know what bogus voting is. The reasons may be partly cultural, but I think compulsory voting also makes such kinds of electoral fraud systemically impossible.

A secondary (but probably more important) effect of forcing everyone to vote is that citizens are forced to take responsibility for the running of the country at every level - national, state and local. We can't sit back and blame the politicians or blame someone else for electing unsuitable leaders. When things go wrong, we and we alone are to blame. It's pretty confronting.

I realise that I now actually like being forced to vote. I feel engaged. I feel I'm part of the process and I have to do my bit. I sat up last night and familiarised myself with the parties and the candidates in my local ward. I would have felt very guilty turning up at the polling station without knowing a thing about what the election was about. It would have been like turning up to write a examination without studying (although I must confess that situation is not exactly unfamiliar to me!)

There has been a lot of angst expressed in recent times in Australia and other Western countries about the loyalties of migrants. Personally, I don't think there is much cause for worry. The most irresistible power is one that is soft, gentle and insidious. You don't build loyalty to a country by forcing people to sing the national anthem or by quizzing them on cultural aspects of the country before granting them citizenship. You win them over by engaging them intimately in the running of the country itself, at every level of government. Loyalty then becomes unconscious.

This is my country because I feel personally responsible for the way it is run. I cannot remain disengaged and alienated. I have to express my preferences. And I have every confidence that my vote is counted in the final tally.

It reminds me of something very interesting that I read about the difference between the brain and other organs. You have a heart, a liver, a stomach, but you are your brain.

I have rights and I have duties, but I am a citizen. Nothing brings that home to me as forcefully as compulsory voting.

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