Monday, September 9, 2013

LD Sep/Oct 2013 - Compulsory Voting - Neg Position

Click here for part 1 of this analysis - definitions

Resolved: In a democracy, voting ought to be compulsory

Neg Position

I think most experienced debaters will look at this resolution and think compulsory equals coercive equals loss of rights, no freedom of choice, dehumanization, Foucault, Nietzsche, and here we go. So yes, we will look at the obvious disadvantages of governmental coercion although compulsory voting may be one of the least coercive things governments do.

Looking at the Aff position I published previously, I feel the most important and perhaps only reason to mandate voting is to solve the harm of low voter turnout.  The expected way to deal with that claim is either show turnout is not low, or low turnout is not harmful, or low turnout is not as harmful as mandated voting or if low turnout does have bad impacts, perhaps there are ways to encourage participation without coercion.

First, let us look at a few common objections to compulsory voting (there are many more than these few examples).

Compulsory Voting Does Not Solve

While it may be stated that compulsory voting does increase the turnout at the polls, it is not necessarily true that the problems associated with low turnout will be solved.

Lever 2009:
"Indeed, the evidence suggests that compulsory voting does nothing other than raise turnout – and there are, in fact, some questions about how far it is better than other means of doing this, too (Margetts 2006, 6). Recent work suggests that compulsory voting has no noticeable effect on political knowledge or interest, (Engelen and Hooghe, 2007) nor, more surprisingly, any evident effect on electoral outcomes (Selb and Lachat, 2007). Unfortunately, it also does not seem to force parties to compete for the votes of the poor, the weak or the marginalized, as Lijphart hoped, or even reduce the costs of electoral campaigns. Hence, Ballinger concludes, “Compulsory turnout does not guarantee inclusiveness; nor does it guarantee political equality” (2006, 13)."

The argument is strongly made that nothing is gained by forcing a disgruntled electorate to vote.  Voters choose to drop out of the election process for a lot of different reasons and forcing them to show up at the polls does nothing to change their attitudes for the better. In fact, just the opposite.

Compulsory Voting Makes Things Worse

Forcing persons who have no interest in the political outcomes may actually harm the process.  On the one hand it forces campaigns to spend more money targeting groups which have no interests in the outcome but even worse, there is a risk of diluting the desires of those who do care about the political outcomes with the votes of those who do not.

Lever 2009:
"...I have argued that the case for compulsory voting is unproven. It is unproven because the claim that compulsion will have beneficial results rests on speculation about the way that nonvoters will vote if they are forced to vote, and there is considerable, and justified, controversy on this matter. Nor is it clear that compulsory voting is well-suited to combating those forms of low and unequal turnout that are, genuinely, troubling. On the contrary, it may make them worse by distracting politicians and voters from the task of combating persistent, damaging, and pervasive forms of unfreedom and inequality in our societies."

Moraro 2012:
"... it could be argued that compulsory voting is likely to do more damage than good, by reducing the quality of the electoral outcome. Forcing everyone to vote means that the voice of those with no interest in politics will influence the decision about who rules the country. This generates what author Jason Brennan calls ‘pollution of the polls’ in his book The ethics of voting,1 and is one of the main causes of the actual crisis of democracy worldwide: incompetent politicians winning elections through media control (the recent case of Italy under Silvio Berlusconi epitomises this phenomenon)."

Democratic Tyranny

Most democracies (most societies) are comprised of subgroups.  Some are poor, some rich; some educated, some not; some advantaged in some way, some not; some disabled, some not; some will be religious, some not; you get the picture.  In a democracy there is a very real prospect that a phenomenon will arise known as the "tyranny of the majority".  This is what happens when the desires of the majority so overwhelm the minority it becomes a form of oppression to the minority group.  For example, the majority could pass tax the rich laws which oppress the wealthy or a dominate religious group could pass laws which are perceived as repressive to the minority or the majority may establish polling places in their neighborhoods forcing minorities to travel great distances to vote.  In many ways, the possibility of majority tyranny becomes an indictment of democracy itself.

"A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength."

John Stuart Mill, the prominent 19th century political philosopher also spoke of the oppression that can arise in democracies in his book "On Liberty".

Brians 1998:
"Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant--society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it--its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself."

State Coercion Bad

Of course we must look to the idea that state coercion is controversial to begin with and the idea the state would usurp an individuals right to not vote or choose to drop out of the political process is an easy target for Neg criticism.

Malkopoulou 2009:
A third objection to compulsory voting, and perhaps the most serious one, is that it violates the principle of liberty, which is one of the core elements of democracy. For this reason, more often than not, the measure is attacked as being undemocratic and coercive. Libertarians claim that they have the right to disagree on the value of political participation as such. They furthermore argue that one should be able to choose among other competitive kinds of participation (Lever,2008). On these grounds, compulsory voting is charged with violating basic human rights, namely the “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (Art. 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights). However, in the case of X v Austria (Application No. 4982/71) in 1971, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that mandatory voting does not violate fundamental freedoms, because only attendance at a polling station – and not voting itself – is compulsory, while the voters also have the option of casting a blank or spoiled ballot paper (cited in Baston and Ritchie, 2004).

The Value of the Neg Position

I have no doubt, the Neg debater will have little problems finding evidence that attacks the principle ideas I laid out at the beginning of this article, that is, low turnout is not bad, mandates do not solve, or the impacts of low turnout are outweighed by the impacts of coercion.  In fact, on a straight up, toe-to-toe battle there is a pretty good chance the Aff and Neg can essentially cancel each other out with offsetting evidence.  For this reason, I think the real debate should be about the value framework.  For example, the Neg may also decide to choose the value of government legitimacy but defend it with the criteria of maximizing liberty.  A government which is able to conduct its affairs with minimal intrusion and coercion into the lives of the citizens is more legitimate.  In fact, if democracy itself, may be considered a value then why not run it under the criterion that a democracy which allows its citizens the freedom of choice is more legitimate.  In fact choosing not to vote may be considered an expression of political will which is just as meaningful as a choice made at the polls.  Under these kinds of frameworks, the contentions and evidence serve to rebut the affirmative case while showing that the expansion of government power represented by the voting mandate is another misguided attempt to control outcomes with no real indication it will ultimately avoid the intended impacts.

Expanding the idea that the government mandates will be ineffectual (yes they will increase turnout, but at what cost?) values such as liberty, freedom of choice and justice stand out.

I think, for now, I have said enough and hopefully you will be able to take these ideas and expand upon them.  Good luck.

For some random thoughts on Pro approaches to Proliferation, click here.

Brians, Paul; John Stuart Mill: On Liberty; Reading About the World, Volume 2; 1998

Lever, Annabelle; Is Compulsory Voting Justified?; 2009


Moraro, Piero; Why compulsory voting undermines democracy; Living Ehtics,Issue 88; 2012

Tocqueville, Alexis de; Democracy in America, chap. 15; English translation by Henry Reeve; 1899


  1. what about V and VC?

    1. Hi. In the section called "The Value of the Neg Position" I did mention V: gov't legitimacy VC: maximizing liberty; and V: democracy VC: maximizing freedom of choice.

  2. Would Autonomy be a good value? What would be a good criterion to go along with this?

    1. Autonomy is a good value, but the criterion depends on what kind of link your case makes to the value. Figure out the overall theme of your case, ask yourself how does my case uphold autonomy and when you answer that you have your criterion.

  3. Thank you so much for posting all of these! They have helped me so much as a first time debater.


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