Why compulsory voting in India is a bad idea

In a response to a 2015 petition filed by one Satyaprakash, who wanted mandatory voting to be enforced in India, the NDA government told the Supreme Court last week that exercising one’s franchise is the fundamental right of every citizen but not a duty. The government relied on the 255th Law Commission Report, which says “electoral right” of the voter includes the right to “vote or refrain from voting at an election.” The Representation of People Act, 1951 – the law that governs elections – too talks of “right to vote rather than a duty to vote”.

The idea of compulsory voting in India has been rejected time and again on the grounds of practical difficulties. However, the issue of compulsory voting is bigger than being just a legal issue. The idea has political ramifications too. So, legal arguments aside, there are political reasons to keep away from the notion of compulsory voting. Political scientists say democracies need to accommodate dissent and diversity of views. This includes the option of disengagement, rights to abstain from participating, if people believe voting is erroneous, undesirable, unnecessary or immoral.

It has often been argued that compulsory voting will improve political participation. But empirical evidence and experience of countries with compulsory voting suggest otherwise. The Australian experience with compulsory voting has revealed the notion of “donkey voting” – where when voters were forced to vote – they voted for the candidate whose name was on the top of the candidates’ list.

 A comprehensive Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance Study reveals that the difference in voter turnouts between the 28 countries with compulsory voting provisions in their statute books and the 171 countries without such provisions is 7.37%. So, increased participation does not guarantee quality participation or does not make a democracy with compulsory voting more vibrant.
There is also a real fear that compulsory voting may lead to more vote buying by candidates especially in a country like India, where we have seen instances of – cash-for-vote scams – where legislators were bought over by money power. Making voting compulsory also kills the option of not voting as a protest. Nobody disputes the benefits of higher and informed voter turn-out for democracy, but instead of taking the compulsory route for wider participation of people in the election process – technology can be harnessed to achieve this end.