By Sandeep Suresh
Sandeep Suresh is a fifth-year law student at the National Law University in Jodhpur, India.
Most major democracies have, at one point or another, had extensive debates regarding their electoral systems due to elections’ integral role in the formation of the skeletal system of a democratic nation. One such aspect of electoral politics that has assumed center stage for debate in the recent past is compulsory voting. The proponents and opponents of compulsory voting have argued from two fronts: the legal front and the logistical front.
There have been more arguments against compulsory voting than for it. From a legal and philosophical angle, I would like to argue that compulsory voting would be in the best interests of the society as a whole. The basic essence of my argument is that in a democracy with a well-defined constitution in place, there can never be a situation where only individual rights can be given an upper hand. There has to be a harmonious balance within the constitution with respect to the rights and duties of every citizen. To quote President Barack Obama:
“We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”
The opponents of compulsory voting—or rather obligatory voting, as I would like to refer to it—argue that in a democratic society, freedom of choice entails the freedom to not choose as well. Using the same analogy, they put forward that the right to vote entails the reverse right of not voting as well and moreover, individual liberty is violated when voting is made mandatory. I agree that compulsory voting may tighten the complete freedom of a citizen to not cast his vote in elections. However, the right to vote does not naturally bestow the right not to vote. The reason for this is that such a right, even though it is an individual right, carries a huge element of public interest and the nation’s political stability at stake. Unlike other rights—for example, right to religion, which is personal in nature and is confined within one’s personal life—the right to vote has realistic effects on the democratic functioning of a country. Therefore, the state has genuine constitutional authority to reasonably restrict the individual right of a citizen to vote and freedom of choice in order to serve the best interests of the nation. In fact, in a Constitution of a democratic nation, no freedom is absolute. Every right and freedom comes with responsibilities and allied duties. Political participation through voting is, to my mind, more of a political, social and constitutional duty of every responsible citizen rather than his or her “right.”
Apart from this, the worry raised against compulsory voting that freedom and liberty is curtailed is unnecessarily glorified. Most of the countries that implement compulsory voting have an option of returning a blank vote without voting for any of the candidates. In the Indian context, through the case of PUCL v Union of India (2013), the Supreme Court ruled that every citizen shall have the right to cast a negative vote in elections by voting for the option ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA). The availability of NOTA option clearly enhances the argument that
compulsory voting curbs the freedom to remain silent and abstain from voting process. By compulsory voting, what is required is the exercise of the moral and legal duty to participate in the functioning of a democracy.
Elections are the backbone of any democratic set up. However, it is only effective voting by the responsible citizens that can provide oxygen to the system. The notions of participatory democracy and representative democracy which are commonly used to describe nations like India and United States can be seen in reality and appreciated only with active voting by citizens. The main reason why some countries like Australia and Argentina have adopted the system of mandatory voting is the low voter turnout at major elections. The prevalent statistical figures clearly show abysmal voter turnouts at major elections in India and the United States and they are clearly disappointing. If you have the right guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws under it, it is disrespectful to not exercise it in a healthy manner and then claim to have no responsibility towards the rest of the society. Only if we exercise our right to vote, rather fulfill our duty to vote, can we proudly quote the great Abraham Lincoln who once said: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth”.
To conclude, even though a democratic society is about choices, I believe that social interests and public welfare should be ahead in priority. A responsible citizen has to compromise his rights at some point or the other during his existence in a democratic country. It is only a positive compulsion that is balanced and reasonable enough to stand the test of constitutional law principles. A system of compulsory voting can definitely act as a positive obligation that can transform a society into a one that is more politically aware and engaged.
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