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Freedom exists in mandatory suffrage

The China Post--Continued from yesterday's article By Alan Fong

Mandatory suffrage has a big PR problem vis-a-vis the word “mandatory.” What kind of democracy forces people to vote? Indeed a major argument against mandatory suffrage contends that it violates people's freedom of speech. The people have the right to not express an option.

But as Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart suggested, democracies put different kinds of mandatory requirements on the people. In Taiwan, people are required to pay tax, attend school and serve in the armed forces (even under the all-volunteer military system to be in place 2015, draftees still need to take four-month basic training and will be in the reserve list). It would be hypocritical to decry mandatory suffrage's infringement to freedom of speech when one cannot opt out of military service regardless of his or her beliefs about the morality of it.

Moreover, mandatory suffrage does not mean being forced to pick a candidate. In many nations that enact some form of compulsory voting, voters can cast blank votes or tick the box “none of the above” if they support none of the candidates on the ballot. Such blank votes can actually send a strong message to the political establishment of public discontent regarding the choices on offer.

Granted, even the choice of handing in blank votes is a forced choice in nature but it is a reasonable and less demanding requirement compared to aforementioned civil duties.

Compulsory voting can be truly dangerous in countries with dysfunctional voting system either due to the public's lack of basic political knowledge or widely rigged votes. The high education level and proliferation of political TV shows in Taiwan make the lack of political awareness less of a concern. While vote buying and underground wagers on election results are not unheard of in Taiwan, elections are reasonably transparent and fair in general. Under such circumstances, increased votership under mandatory suffrage might actually help dilute the impact of vote buying and influence of gambling rings to election outcomes.

The true goal of a mandatory suffrage system in Taiwan should be to encourage civil participation, not to add trouble to people or to persecute non-voters. The system should be in place only after voting is made extremely convenient for everyone (for example when electronic voting becomes the norm). A clear “none of the above” option in the ballot and an opt-out system should be designed to allow voters to express their wish not to choose. Similar to many nations currently practicing compulsory voting, punishment for violations should be minimal, even nominal. More importantly, the system should also be accompanied by a comprehensive program to provide people with resources for political self-education. The goal is to ensure politicians realize that they answer to everyone in Taiwan and not just the politically motivated part of the population.

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