A democracy bonus - Macleans.ca

A democracy bonus


Eight years ago, in an essay for Policy Options, professor Bruce Hicks made the case—with reference to Athens—for the sort of tax credit now being floated by the Alberta Liberals as a response to declining voter turnout.

The Australian Electoral Commission, meanwhile, has a useful guide to their system of compulsory voting—Eric Weiner wrote a good overview of it for Slate some years ago. The idea of a tax credit has been floated before by politicians and observers in Canada, but it doesn’t seem that any jurisdiction, here or elsewhere, has ever followed through.

Professors Hicks, Peter Loewen and Henry Milner conducted an experiment in 2007 to test whether financially compelled voting necessarily led to greater political engagement. Their results didn’t demonstrate the increased awareness that is supposed to follow from compulsory voting, but there is too the argument that increased voting is a good thing in and of itself. Conversely, there is a case to be made that low turnout isn’t necessarily a problem—that those who vote accurately reflect the views of the general populace, that low turnout is a sign of general satisfaction, that high turnout is often seen in moments of crisis (and nations with dictators) and so forth.


A democracy bonus

  1. A tax credit is a bad idea – not everyone can use it, for starters.

    If we really want to increase voter turnout, we should have a lottery tied to each election. Put the $50 per head into a pot, and send everone home with a ticket. At the end of the night, we not only get to hear the election results, but one lucky voter becomes a millionaire.

    But why stop there? Why not make the polling stations more entertaining. Live music, Tim Horton's kiosks, balloons for the kids, and maybe T-shirts or "I voted" hats or something.

    Once we render voting a service (almost a consumable product) instead of a civic responsibility, the possibilities are frigging endless.

    • That's an excellent point which I think applies equally to all tax credits. Why should middle or high income parents be the only ones who see something back from sending their kids to hockey camp? Sure, it's likely that the low income parents can't afford to, but if they scrimp and save to do something special for their kid like that, how come they don't see any benefit from it.

      • Possibly because the low-income parents already don't pay taxes. Isn't that enough? Or should they be given more money on top of not paying a cent in income tax?

        Here in Quebec, 40% of the population doesn't pay taxes. The other 60% (myself included) have to support the other 40%. And every time there's a tax credit offered by one level of gov't (whether provincial, federal or municipal), there are always people with your mentality who describe the 60% as "rich" and "upper class" and how it's "unfair" that the government even dare consider giving us tax credits.

        • So you're saying that low-income parents *should* have to pay more to send their kids to hockey camp.. because they're obviously the riff-raff that don't pay taxes.

          Got it. Poor and disadvantaged people should have to pay more if they want to participate in the same things that the well-off do.

          Here's a thought.. rather than giving non-refundable tax credits.. give refundable ones. Better yet.. just subsidize the damn programs directly so that anybody who's interested can see a discount up front, rather than having the government have your money for the year prior. At least that's honest.

          • I never said the poor should pay more to send their kids to hockey camp, and I'm not attacking them as "riff-raff." Don't put words in my mouth.

            I'm making a comment about how taxpayers are always singled out and attacked for receiving tax credits. There exist many subsidies for the "poor and disadvantaged" which disqualify many middle-class families, due to their income levels. So the government offers credits for those who pay taxes. I don't see anything wrong with that.

            Just as most subsidies target the lower class to the exclusion of the middle class, tax credits target the middle class (and yes, the upper class) to the exclusion of the lower class. Why eliminate credits to the middle class?

            (Of course, not all subsidies exclude the middle class, but there are many for which they are disqualified.)

            Subsidising the programs directly is not a bad idea per se, but there are other problems with that scenario.

          • I'm not saying eliminate credits to the middle class. I'm saying don't use public money to privilege a higher class over a lower class.. which is what you're arguing for.

        • You do realize that tax credits further shift the tax burden disproportionately, don't you?

          Either you're for more equal taxation, or you're against it. Pick one.

          • Yes, and I recall reading somewhere that cost of living increases disproportionately affect those in lower income brackets.

            That said, it's a valid point to raise that a small proportion of any population in this country pays a significant amount of the taxes. While those earning more in take-home pay tend to have a better ability to absorb those taxes, it's not fair to demonize them for being able to do so.

          • Under our current system, with our current crop of politicians, there will never be equal taxation. Never.

          • So you're just advocating for unfairness that benefits yourself?

          • So you're just advocating for unfairness that benefits yourself?

            No, not at all. I didn't say we should revoke all credits and subsidies to the lower classes. I'm merely saying that, if we're going down that road (tax credits), then at least be fair about it: At least have some credits that the middle class can take advantage of.

            As soon as someone mentions tax credits for the middle class, there are groups of people who call this "unfair" to the lower class. Well, yes, the lower class can't cash in on certain tax credits, but there are many more credits and subsidies that are out of reach of the middle class. If you're offering tax credits, why not give the middle class a break too while you're at it?

            In any case, this is all moot, because I'm not defending tax credits (as crazy as that may sound). I believe we're actually on the same page, judging from what you've written, on the subject of tax credits. I'm simply saying that, since we're on that path (tax credits), might as well be fair about it and throw the middle class a bone.

      • As a general principle, I'm against using the tax system for any kind of social engineering.

        Also, governments get a bit of false publicity from tax credits, in that the bottom line benefit to claimants is really only the tax they would pay on the amount. One really wouldn't get $50 to vote, but rather the percentage tax rate of that $50.

        • I'm not.. I think the tax system is a great way to provide incentives and disincentives to people, but non-refundable tax-credits are about the worst possible way to do that.

          • A convoluted tax system undermines its legitimacy, and makes both accounting for program expenditures and assessing results much more difficult (thus undermining transparency).

            It also feeds the notion that paying next-to-none taxes is the ideal goal for citizens, which isn't good in the long run (without suggesting that we need to pay excessively high taxes, either).

            It also hides the true administrative costs of each program. While some efficiencies are gained in using the existing tax bureacracy, we never know how much each additional credit adds to their workload, incrementally, and thus lose important cost data.

    • You can have refundable tax credits. I like making the polling stations fun though. Cookies!

      • The Alberta Liberal proposal refers to a 'tax cut', which I think means non-refundable tax credit.

        Maybe cookies with little pencils baked inside?

        • Sounds like a bad halloween.

    • I don't mind a tax credit, given that it is of the refundable type so that everyone could get it, even if they have no income of any type to report. As well, I blue-sky about combining this credit with the political party donation….

      Something along the lines of:
      – if you show up at a polling station on election day your presence is acknowledged, and that is all that is required to qualify
      – vote or don't vote, or spoil your ballot or whatever
      – election results would then show total attendees, as well as total vote casts and spolied balltos; the delta between attendees and ballots might indicate something?

    • cont'd

      – on the front page of your tax form, in the same area that you currently allow or disallow your tax return to automatically add you to the voters list, you would be faced with a two part question, along the lnes of "If applicalbe, please allocate my refundable vote tax credit as follows:
      _____% back to me
      _____% to the CPC
      _____% to the LPC
      _____% to the NDP
      _____% to the BQ
      _____% to the GP
      _____% to the _______ Party
      _____% to pay off the national debt."
      – the ONLY way that a political party could get a donation of any type would be via this refund.

      So, we have solved the problem of declining participation, eliminated the vote subsidy, eliminated the equally annoying Political Tax Credit, and started to pay down the national debt. Could it get any better than that?

      • I still don't like using the tax system, but that's pretty frigging creative, I have to say.

  2. I'm going to run out of Josh Lyman quotes Wherry, you're killing me.

  3. I'm pretty sure the reason workers were paid to vote, for a time, in Athens had to do with compensating the loss of a day's wages for those could not afford it.

    No such obstacle exists in Canada, so the comparison is a bit flimsy.

    Also, Hicks starts off by stating that representative voting is a cornerstone of democracy, and that if segments of the population aren't voting much it runs contrary to democratic principles. I'd argue that the cornerstone of democracy is the *right* to vote, and the equal *opportunity* to vote. Both of which are secure for any Canadian wishing to participate.

    • Also, Hicks starts off by stating that representative voting is a cornerstone of democracy, and that if segments of the population aren't voting much it runs contrary to democratic principles.

      Read: Young men under 30. (Women too, but especially men.)

    • In ancient Athens, paying people to vote was also a way of acknowledging all of the other civic engagement work that Athenian citizens did for free all the time, like sitting on juries, participating in the assembly, and taking their turn at various civic offices and essentially voluntarily running the civil service. When we reach that level of voluntary public participation I'd consider paying people to vote.

    • We could really use Jack Mitchell on this thread. Sigh.

      • I thought that too.

      • Crit, just for you, I have been searching the attic of this internet thingy for a Coyne post espousing all the wonderful merits of mandatory voting. In vain. The search, that is. I will leave to others the evaluation of Coyne's argument.

        While I worked hard on a three-ish paragraph comment reminding Coyne of the merits of individual freedom, and the lack of wisdom inherent in counting the votes of people who would have preferred not to show up, Jack used three words to call Coyne's idea fascist.

        If I find the web page (doubtful, since I am now abandoning the search in favour of other pursuits), I will throw up a link for ya.

  4. It's sort of a "reverse poll tax". Instead of discouraging the rabble from voting via literacy tests and taxes they are forcing the rabble to vote. Who benefits? Possibly right wing parties, somewhat counter-intuitively. A lot of Liberal policies are extremely harmful to the poorest Canadians; Liberal policies are meant to benefit relatively affluent public sector unionized workers, NGO/poverty industry workers, and the members of the Coalition of Victimhood Junkies that the Liberal party has marshalled, not necessarily the poor. I suspect private sector employed regular everyday Canadians are less organized and engaged than their union goon counterparts in the public sector, so getting them more involved might hurt Liberals electorally.

    The study you link to uses a group of over 100 subjects; 75% of them are girls, and a median age of 18. It should be accompanied with the disclaimer "You are on crack if you cite this". At least one of the academics in the study is a well know Liberal party of Canada activist whose name appears on the Liberal party website at this very moment.

  5. I think voting should be compulsory. If there is majority government, every four years or so we should have election on Canada Day and make people vote or receive fine.

    Voting and Canada Day would be tied together and would help rebuild some of the civic bonds that we are lacking because government and its ways have destroyed any sense of community people once had.

    • Canada day is a summer holiday, when a lot of people go away on vacation. Unless they vote well in advance, or vote by mail, I suggest finding another, non-summer day. Like in November, like the Americans.

      • "Canada day is a summer holiday …. "

        Everyone says this to me when I mention my voting idea. All I can say is I don't care that people might have their long weekend delayed once every four years (at most).

        People think too much about their rights and not enough about their duties.

    • I guess right-wingers can endorse totalitarianism too, from time to time.

      • If you say so. One difference between my idea and totalitarianism is that elections count for something in Canada and no one party will get 98.4% of the vote like they do in proper totalitarian countries.

        I would not be advocate of compulsory voting if government and its policies did not destroy the idea of community within Canada. I am fan of the 'little platoons' that Burke talked about and we should do everything we can to strengthen them, not obliterate them like we are doing now.

        I only desire compulsory voting because I think of it as simple way to encourage development of civic society. I assume you were being sarcastic but I liked your idea about party hats, live musc and tim's kiosks. People having fun with other Canadians on Canada Day is not a bad thing, you know.

        "Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects." Boston Globe, Aug 2007

        • You put your finger on it nicely there: as Canada becomes more diverse we must compensate for the declining civic engagement and social capital "deficits" that peer-reviewed science have proven are a result of diversity by considering innovative democratic initiatives. I'd like to build on this by combining it with the "synergies" of Mr. Ignatieff's proposed "Super-Canadian" stratum of citizenship, which, like most preferred classes of stock, would be "non-voting" shares, which raises the question: should we be forcing the 2.8 million Canadians living abroad to vote too?

          • Bonko, do you have links to those peer-reviewed articles to support your argument? Because my own research, and that of these guys suggests that while interpersonal trust may suffer as a result of diversity, social capital – being the benefits derived from engagements one has with those outside oneself – does not uniformly suffer with increasing levels of diversity.

            Collective goods, such as a broad-reaching trust in government and interpersonal trust are certainly correlated to levels of diversity, but causation is difficult to prove (for this, and any other topic) because statistics can find a causal relationship between the toothpaste you use and the number of red lights you'll hit in a day.

            Other things that are correlated to trust in government and interpersonal trust include social engagement, level of education, and community size.

          • "statistics can find a causal relationship between the toothpaste you use and the number of red lights you'll hit in a day. "

            Thank you for being forthright with your dismissal of the scientific method and the mathematical field of statistics, which relieves me of the trouble of providing scientific statistical data that you don't believe in anyway.

            Kudos for being somewhat civil – a rarity among feminist commenters/stalkers who inevitably hound me in every thread for a particular kind of "proof" for whatever I am discussing – and for your candid admission that interpersonal trust does indeed suffer as a result of diversity. Social capital refers to the amount of time people invest in their communities coaching hockey and such, and it indeed has been proven – by the statistical method you oppose and the field of statistics you refuse to recognize – to decline as a result of diversity.

            So we see once again how the left is willing to reject the scientific method itself and entire branches of mathematics when confronted with data that shatters the myths underlying everything they believe in.

          • At no point do I dismiss the scientific method. It's a complete fabrication to suggest that I have, or would. I also don't dismiss statistics entirely. Your conclusion – that "the left is willing to reject the scientific method itself and entire branches of mathematics…" et cetera is based on a faulty premise, which is a complete misreading of my statement. Go back, and instead of just looking for key words to piss on, read the whole thing.

            I dismiss findings of causality, which in statistics, is different from measures of correlation and association. Those who use statistics on a daily basis, and understand them, know this distinction and mind it in their reading of numbers.

            I therefore repeat my request for you to provide evidence of these peer-reviewed studies which suggest diversity decreases social capital, which we apparently define differently.

          • I have not heard civic society referred to as social capital before but from what I can tell, a quick look at Wiki, they are same thing.

            Here are a few links:

            "There is striking evidence, however, that the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades." http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/journal_o

            "The analysis relies on data from both the ‘Citizenship, Involvement, Democracy' (CID)
            survey in the US and the ‘Equality, Security and Community Survey' (ESCS) in Canada. …. confirms recent findings on the negative effect of neighborhood diversity on white majorities across the two countries."

            "The role of racial cleavages leading to low trust is confirmed when we explicitly account for individual preferences on inter racial relationships: within the same community, individuals who express stronger feelings against racial integration trust relatively less the more racially heterogeneous the community is."

          • I'm not going to dispute that diversity has decreased interpersonal trust (in particular, in the US), because really, it's the seventh-grade-dance effect. (Girls: "Boys?!? EW"; Boys: "Girls?!? EW") People identify with those who they feel are "like them", and when they identify with them, they are more likely to "trust" them more, however it's measured.

            What I dispute is that social capital declines with diversity. Putnam made that argument in Bowling Alone – which makes for (IIRC) a decent US tome, but the socio-economic dynamics in Canada (in particular, our immigration patterns and the role of religion, as compared to the US) are different, and need to be more fully considered before we go claiming that "minorities make white people do less in their communities." Which is, in effect, what the "diversity hurts social captial" argument boils down to.

          • (continued)

            Your second reference, the Stolle/Soroka/Johnston article, found that "the negative effects [of diversity on "white majorities"] can be mediated by social ties." So I'm not sure how that supports the idea that diversity is inherently bad for social capital.

            I define social capital as "the benefits derived from engagements one has with those outside oneself " – broadly, in short. To me, it doesn't have to mean that one engaged with one's local or other government, or related associations, boards or commissions (which is what I'd define as civic engagement), though this would be one component of social capital.

          • One aspect I would like to see studied more of is role of expansion of government in negatively affecting civil society.

            I think since mid to late 1960s, when it was decided government is the solution to all our problems, government taking over roles/duties/positions previously filled by civil society have made people more self centred and less communal.

            LynnTO – I just finished reading Goldberg column and I was thinking of people at Maclean's who don't follow script. You are one of the few commentators who I think argues in good faith. I always enjoy are occasional discussions.

            "We are taught to believe that ideology is the enemy of free thought. But that's not right. Ideology is a mere checklist of principles and priorities. The real enemy of clear thinking is the script. We think the world is supposed to go by a familiar plot. And when the facts conflict with the script, we edit the facts." Jonah Goldberg, May 19 2010

          • One aspect I would like to see studied more of is role of expansion of government in negatively affecting civil society.

            I agree, I think that's a really good idea.

          • Michael Adams makes the same conclusions in the Canadian context as Putnam, that ethnic communities self-segregate in "ethnic silos", to use his term. Implicit in the concept of ethnic silos is that ethnic communities are not engaged in society as a whole and favour ethnic-based interactions; this is the very definition of a decline in social capital.

            It's not for you to accept or reject entire branches of mathematics or the scientific method itself at your convenience, or to make up your own personal definition of social capital, it is for you to stop harassing the scientifically minded and stop engaging in an obvious FUD campaign against scientific, peer-reviewed data documenting some negative externalities that are a direct result of diversity.

          • "It's not for you to accept or reject entire branches of mathematics or the scientific method itself at your convenience,"

            If you'd come down off your high horse for a moment, you'd see that's not what I'm doing. For example: There's no universal agreement in accepting stepwise regression as an absolute form of determining causality, rather, using it as a guide to other forms of statistical interpretation is much more useful; statistical causality does not have a way to determine the direction in which the causality flows (even IF we can normatively establish it); and, causality has the ability to determine spurious connections, even when other factors are accounted for.

          • it is for you to stop harassing the scientifically minded and stop engaging in an obvious FUD campaign against scientific, peer-reviewed data documenting some negative externalities that are a direct result of diversity."

            Please explain to me how my criticisms of academic data constitute harrassment. Seriously, if you're going to throw a criminal allegation out there, back it up.

            I'm not denying that diversity has had some negative consequences – read my posts, will you? What I'm saying is that slagging on diversity as the cause of a loss of social capital, in and of itself, is misleading; "in-group" social capital is just as viable as "out-group" social capital. They relate differently to interpersonal trust, and this should be addressed, because both have distinct implications for civic engagement (as distinct from social engagement) and interpersonal trust, as well as trust in government. But to discount one as illegitimate and the other as valid, is, I would argue, a dangerous slide into ethnocentrism.

        • "totalitarian" was the wrong term, you're quite right.

          I'm still a bit surprised that you advocate such a stong exercise of state power to force people to vote, and justify that incursion upon our freedom by suggesting likely benefits that we'd realize as a result.

          That sounds awfully like the template for most lefty-socialist policy. Which I always thought you hated.

          • 1) I am not an anarchist, I believe State can coerce us now and then …. just less often than most other Canadians are comfortable with. And mandatory voting is one coercion I am comfortable with.

            2) I would not make anyone vote they just have to show up at polling station. People can tear up their ballots, vote non of the above or whatever. I just want one day, every four years, where Canadians come together to think about Canada.

          • " And mandatory voting is one coercion I am comfortable with."

            That's fine, but be careful in the future not to criticize others for suggesting different coercions on the basis that coercion is bad thing.

  6. I fail to see how democracy is enhanced by forcing people to vote who have no interest in who governs them, and who are likely ill-informed and largely ignorant of the alternatives being offered. IIf someone is too stupid to understand the importance of voting, then I think they are making the right decision by not voting. I see no reason to reduce the importance of my vote by forcing know-nothings to cast ballots. I'm happy to do the job for them.

    • I suppose they could spoil their ballot.

      • Otherwise known as voting Green. :)

    • I don't think people who don't vote are too stupid to understand it's importance; it's much more complex than that. There are many reasons for apathy. Many poor/less educated people think more about immediate hand-to-mouth issues; they're living day-to-day and expend their energies as such. The benefits of voting are vague to them, and too long-term and uncertain.

      I think a large number of non-voters are these poor/less educated, and they are an important group who should be ifluencing goverment policy in some way. Some efforts to have kitchen table discussions with them about the importance of voting, as well as other incentives (cookies?) should be implemented.

  7. Everyone keeps citing Australia's mandatory voting as something to consider. But I never hear anyone talk about why we need to be more like Australia in any other way. So why should their example be convincing at all?

    (I'm not slamming the Aussies, just to be clear. But I don't think anyone looks to them as any sort of exemplar nation or utopia, all at the same time).

    • On the other hand, how many countries are seen as an exemplar nation of utopia? Norway, perhaps? Canada? I know of at least some Americans who have a highly positive (albeit somewhat hazy) view of our country.

      • True enough. And utopia is an unfairly high bar. It's just that I'd like to see some more developed use of the evidence. Something like: " Australia has mandatory voting which has enabled x, y and z to happen. Wouldn't it be great if Canada could have more x, y and z too?"

        • Agreed. It's hard to point to positive developments in Australia that are a demonstrable result of mandatory voting, except perhaps the rise of joke parties.

        • Wouldn't it be great if Canada could have more x, y and z too?"

          … and be so wonderfully beautifully great that it would justify the loss of freedom associated with compulsory voting?

          I can think of no x, y or z great enough.

          • http://www.aec.gov.au/pdf/voting/compulsory_voting.pdf

            There's a link to a study put out by the Australian electoral commission in 2006. (Aaron: if you're reading this it might be worth including in your post)

            Among the benefits (and I've read this elsewhere) noted is a high voter turnout – I kid you not!

            Also, legitimacy is said to be enhanced, it fosters voter engagement (any alternative Fosters is a good thing for that lot, it must be said), and that parties can focus on campaigning policies (instead of spending time and money on getting out the vote). Pretty thin gruel, all in all.


  8. Regarding forcing people to vote:

    Isn't the right to vote just as important as the right not to vote? When we're forced to take part in the democratic process, doesn't that in itself make it undemocratic? It just seems a little ironic to me…

    • I agree. Compulsory voting seems undemocratic to me. I see voting as a civil right, not a civic duty. One is not compelled to exercise one's civil rights.

      • democracy is formed based on the will of the people, something something.

      • While I tend to agree, I think your phrasing makes it obvious that whether voting is a civil right or a civic duty is a subjective choice that we each make. I'm curious if there's any means we can really see what the pros and cons are of each side.

  9. Why not a tax credit for helping old ladies cross the street? A tax credit for covering our mouths while belching?

    This is a ridiculous idea. You don't bribe people to do what they should be doing already. We don't need tax credits all over the place.

    People will vote if they can see the benefit. Simple as that. If they don't care one way or the other who wins, then they won't vote. Simple as that. This is not rocket science. There are many reasons why people might not care to vote, and in many cases they are legitimate reasons.

  10. Democracy BONUS? Bribing everyone to go vote is a democracy BONUS? Hello? From Aaron's idea alert of 4 days ago, may I offer this command performance today:

    There is not a whole lot asked of any citizen in a rich democracy. Obey the laws, pay your taxes, and haul-ass off to the voting booth once in a while. And only the first two are requirements; the last would be nice but is by no means mandatory.

    If even a friggin' X on a ballot comes with a what's-in-it-for-me demand, please, loser, do us all a favour and just stay home.

  11. Thanks, myl! Do you know roughly how long ago it was? I'll have a look too. ;-)

    • Pretty sure it was before Intense Debate came along, but that's about it. Maybe it was Jack, maybe it was J@ck.

    • Found it. From November 2008:

      Quoting Coyne: A crude but effective remedy would be to do as the Australians have done, and make voting mandatory.

      Quoting Jack: Crude but fascistic.

      • Heh. Sounds like Jack, all right! Thanks for finding this!