Making voting mandatory is a result of laws that mandate eligible citizens to both register and participate in elections, with penalties for those who choose not to do so. Currently, 22 nations have embraced compulsory voting, and this requirement is enforced in 11 democracies, constituting around 5 per cent of all United Nations members.
In ancient Athens, citizens were expected to engage in decision-making, though attendance at the assembly remained voluntary. Social disapproval sometimes greeted those who opted out. Belgium boasts the oldest active compulsory voting system, established in 1893 for men and expanded to include women in 1948 after universal female suffrage. Every Belgian citizen aged 18 and above, as well as registered non-Belgian voters, must show up at their designated polling stations. Failure to participate in at least four elections could result in losing the voting privilege for a decade. Moreover, non-voters may encounter challenges securing jobs in the public sector.
Compulsory enrolment for federal elections became a reality in Australia in 1912. While voting for Indigenous Australians began in 1949, it wasn’t until 1984 that enrolment and having one’s name on the voting register became mandatory for them. On the flip side, both Venezuela and the Netherlands transitioned from compulsory voting to a voluntary system. The Dutch held their final mandatory elections in 1967, and Venezuela followed suit in 1993.
In certain nations, like Brazil — the largest country with compulsory voting — citizens are growing increasingly discontent with the obligation to vote. In the 2014 presidential election, a significant number of around 30 million voters, roughly 21 per cent of those registered, chose not to participate, despite Brazil imposing some of the strictest penalties on non-voters.
India’s decision to kickstart its democracy with universal adult franchise right after gaining independence was truly remarkable. It’s crucial to remember that in 1947, a staggering 80% of our population was illiterate. Our nation was largely rural, with some villages being quite challenging to access. The scars of bloodshed from 1946 to 1948 marked North India, and the aftermath of Partition had disruptive effects on both people and administration.
From the second Battle of Tarain in 1192 until 1947, Prithviraj Chauhan stood as the last Hindu monarch to rule Delhi. Essentially, Hindus lacked the experience of governing at the highest level for almost nine centuries. Considering voting rights, even the United Kingdom, often regarded as the progenitor of modern democracies, only implemented universal adult male voting in 1918; women gained the right to vote much later, in 1928.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was known for his practical approach. When the universal adult franchise was declared as part of the electoral policy, it’s quite plausible that the Sardar would have pursued the logical outcome — compulsory voting. His thoroughness was evident in every endeavor he undertook. Take, for instance, the integration of princely states into India; it was executed with such precision that all states, except Hyderabad, committed to accede to India by Independence Day. Patel, however, couldn’t exert influence on Jammu & Kashmir, as Jawaharlal Nehru, originally from Kashmir, took charge of the state, with Sheikh Abdullah as his close friend.
Compulsory voting is embraced by various nations worldwide. Noteworthy examples include Argentina since 1912, Australia since 1924, and Brazil, Ecuador (since 1936), Peru (since 1933), Uruguay (since 1970), and Singapore. If Sardar Patel didn’t have the time to enact such a policy, one can hope that his pragmatic successors would consider it. Interestingly, the only party likely to oppose compulsory voting is the one that thrives on strategic voting as such a mandate would render tactical voting obsolete.
This holds special relevance for India, given the persistent challenge of what we term the “vote bank,” specifically the “minority vote bank.” In essence, this denotes the tendency of religious minority communities to actively participate in voting, while the majority Hindu community often exhibits disinterest in electoral matters and political issues. However, grievances arise within the majority when policies don’t align with their preferences. The landscape has undergone notable shifts post the 2014 elections, yet it would be premature to claim that political awareness has firmly rooted itself among the majority of the country’s voters.
When politics bends to the will of specific religious vote banks, it poses a significant and enduring security threat to the nation—a bitter reality India has grappled with in past decades. The reluctance to respond to cross-border terror attacks from our neighbouring country stemmed from the apprehension that taking action might upset voters of a particular religious affiliation, potentially harming the ruling party’s electoral prospects. This unfortunate stance earned India the label of a “soft state,” resulting in limited global sympathy in the face of persistent acts of terror. The transformative shift in both voting patterns and government policies post the 2014 elections strengthens the case for compulsory voting.
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com)