Pay the price for not voting

·6-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

MAY 4 — ...literally. All adult Malaysians who fail to cast their ballots are fined. Agree? This is not a wild or new proposition. Australians have practised it for a hundred years, along with more than 20 other countries.

While readers may feel aggrieved that an illiberal method is employed to increase liberty — the contradiction is not lost — it is also a fine way to increase participation and normalise voting in countries. It is certainly worth a debate or two in the backyard over a holiday barbeque or banter at the pub after work.

A peruse of nations observing the rule helps the discussion along.

Fine way to vote

Brazil, Chile and Belgium, among others, are in this club.

The specifics differ and the fines are nominal — from US$10 to no more than US$100 (RM445). Cyprus mandated jail for infringers but the hardly enforced law was eventually repealed.

There are cautionary tales from the exercise. North Korea has it but as a manufactured consent charade since often only one name is on the ballot paper. It abets the regime to identify objectors and to trace defectors by virtue of their no-show.

The United States and Britain do not have mandatory voting. Presumably to underline that choice is the higher principle of democracy. While votes amplify choice, to opt out is a form of choice too.

Be mindful, the Americans also refuse to cut out excessive political funding by special interests on the basis it is free speech. Which underlines the other fact, the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

Malaysians would pay most attention to the closest and similar example, Singapore.

In the island republic, transgressors post-election are removed from future electoral rolls. They cannot be candidates or vote in future elections. They can restore their status by filling a form at Singapore’s Elections Department, provide a valid reason — working overseas and illness are among accepted excuses — or in lieu pay S$50 (RM165).

Malaysia can pick its method, though the Australian perpetual fines for absence at every election is far more palatable than the Singaporean disenfranchisement.

The overarching goal is to actively get Malaysians to vote, and fines work. It does raise substantially voting turnout.

Another bother

Malaysians are apt to point out that this is an additional burden on them.

It is.

But at the heart of democratic participation is the act to burden the people with the power to determine their own future. In a monarchy, commoners are released of this burden, though hardly anyone, even the most indifferent to democracy would champion a return to that in the civilised world.

It is key to note that systems often force compliance.

In that people have to pay taxes and endure the super dread, filing tax forms which can petrify the weak-willed — this columnist included.

Malaysians must possess a MyKad, the national identity card. Renew periodically and pay fines when they lose them — fees which increase with subsequent losses.

Children have to be registered at schools, and parents have to show up for certain instances like graduations.

Government hospital queues and wait times infuriate but those in need find the resolve. The unfortunate vehicular fender-bender requires those involved to file police reports at that inconveniently located district traffic police headquarters.

These consume our lives, however accepted as part of “what we do”. Even when the government decides to shut down all meaningful life and forces almost all inhabitants to their homes for then-undefined months to fight a pandemic.

All those decisions to enforce a national identity card, manage the public schools and universities, how to distribute our healthcare resources which determines human survival and every other officialdom are decided by the body politic which is formed through the counting of votes.

A lot of our inconveniences can be rid by a highly efficient government so the process to select them is precious. It is the ultimate way to protect every citizen’s self-interest.

When it is so vital, why would it fail the test of importance? How then is forcing the rakyat to protect itself via voting, a burden?

Quick wins

When more Malaysians vote the result has more gravitas.

Without mandatory voting, in time turnouts will dwindle. Low turnout wins reflect not the rakyat but rather the minority who care to be counted. In does reduce the outcome’s legitimacy.

When more Malaysians vote the result has more gravitas. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
When more Malaysians vote the result has more gravitas. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

When more Malaysians vote the result has more gravitas. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Segments are then over-represented.

Like for example in status quo, older voters have greater weightage by virtue of their higher turnout and younger voters less because they cannot be bothered — which is common in most countries.

If candidates know almost everyone votes — thanks to obligatory voting — they’d increase their articulation of pro-youth issues.

Younger voters — on student stipends or low wages — are likelier to vote to avoid a RM100 fine than forty-something site supervisors or customer service coordinators.

The coercion, knowing one needs to vote in order to avoid consequences, increases the request for information — even the obtuse prefer not to be deigned a Philistine. Since those similar tend to flock together, the level of discussion about politics and candidates among the obdurate — the unlikely to talk policies groups — jumps up.

There is the rebuttal that making those unintending to participate to participate would compromise the outcome, as they may choose randomly or poorly.

The quick answer, probably. But look deeper.

Firstly, democracy enables all regardless of education, income and demography, so voting motive does not erode the principles of active power sharing regardless of ignorance.

Second, protecting a purer and superior democracy is the argument presented by Athenian landowners to deny women, slaves and workers the vote.

Hesitations to jive

Democracy’s greatest criticism is that it is conceptual and credible only when it has institutionalised itself into the psyche of the people. Which is near-impossible because the journey to mass-participation expects many conditions; that those elected seek not to end the people’s right to elect again out of their obsession with power, the economy continues to grow persistently in order to not encourage undemocratic forces to blame democracy and media is freer without being the modern opiate utilised by the ruling class.

The passage from new democracy to a working democracy is fraught with dangers. A vibrant democracy is distant dream for many on the planet.

Democracies are likelier to fail than succeed because it demands active participation at every stage.

Compulsory voting does not automate democratic activism among voters.

But as a dance teacher once told me, you can never guarantee a good time for a gathered crowd but if you get them up from their seats to the dance-floor, there’s a chance.

Compulsory voting is akin to that. Get them to the dance floor enough times, they might just dance. Presciently, the price for not voting is not merely a fine. No, it is much higher.

Some people do not know that, and other people forget it. Burdening both of them to the fore on voting day is not the worst thing a democracy can think of.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.