With the New South Wales election only a fortnight away, I was asked a question about the ethics and morality of compulsory voting.
The ethics of compulsory voting is a different sort of question to the issue of the extension of the franchise. It makes perfect sense that everyone who is over the age of majority and is therefore considered responsible enough by the state to make decisions should have the vote but does the state have the right to demand that people vote?
I think "yes".
I think that its true enough that government works best when the legislature rules with the consent of the governed. If power is voluntarily given upwards to a representative body, then I think that its either logical that someone is selected at random from the electorate, or that they at least have a say in the decision process to select their representatives.
Quite apart from the questions of the pros and cons of the various voting systems (which by the way, I think that proportional representation is by far the best), making voting compulsory is for me, little more than an issue of utility.
The ideal timeframe for a group of sitting members to get things done, appears to be a nebulous figure which lies somewhere between two and a half and five years. I don't think that it is terribly onerous to make people stand in a queue once every few years and make them mark a ballot paper.
If we people want to drive a motor car on public roads, we make them go through a registration process annually. If people sign up for a utility to be connected to their house (like the water, gas, electric, council rates, etc.) then they're made to pay the bills on a regular cycle between one and three months. If governments are appointed on a reasonably predictable cycle, then how is that different in principle to paying the utility bills?
Of course the difference between appointing civil government and paying bills, is that all of those bills are voluntary. You can choose not to have a motor car if you wish; you can choose not to have the electric or water or gas connected to your house if you wish but you can not choose not to derive the benefits which governments provide if you are living in a country. Yes, you can argue about the relative merits of the involvement of the state in the running of society but when it comes to the determination of the rule of law and the legislature, you can not voluntarily and unilaterally decide that you aren't part of a country (unless you gain enough citizens and consent to form a new country).
If the government is responsible to the people, then I think that it follows that the people are also responsible for the appointment of that government. I think that someone who does not vote is abrogating their responsibility to the country they live in and are negligent.
There is the question of whether or not you even like the choices that you have in an election and so I think that there should always be an option to vote for "none of the above" with provisions in place if sufficient numbers of people choose this option. At the moment, if you do sprawl the words "puke on all of them" then that ballot paper gets counted with all of the ones which are mistake ridden or blank and I don't think that that's right.
On the other hand, I can understand that people may choose not to vote for religious reasons but I don't think that this is an excuse to disengage from the voting process. By arriving at a polling station, they have proved that they have exercised their responsibility as a citizen and the fact that you can place an empty ballot paper into the ballot box, does enable them to discharge that responsibility whilst maintaining their religious dignity.
There is an adage which says that nature abhors a vacuum and I think that this is especially true when it comes to actual governance. Essentially there are two main methods used to allocate economic and social goods and services and these are the operation of markets and the process of democracy. Quite frankly I think that it says something about the health of democracy if people are generally cynical about what governments can and can't do because by default, if democracy doesn't fill the void of power, then the power of the market does; which is mostly indifferent and in some cases actively works against the welfare of people. I don't think that it's unreasonable to force people to consider their own welfare; the very least they can do is make a few marks on a ballot paper once every few years.