Federal Liberals ponder mandatory voting

Party testing grassroots reaction


OTTAWA — With voter turnout plunging to new lows, Liberal MPs are pondering the idea of legally requiring Canadians to cast ballots in federal elections.

They’re road testing the idea of mandatory voting in a survey emailed to party members, which seeks grassroots input into some of the “new ideas” explored by MPs during their summer caucus retreat last week.

Whether mandatory voting is adopted as part of the eventual Liberal election platform remains to be seen.

But deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale says it’s an idea that deserves serious consideration, given the ailing health of Canada’s democracy.

“It’s an interesting notion that I think bears some very careful reflection,” Goodale said in an interview.

He stressed that Liberal caucus is, for now, only testing grassroots reaction to the idea. But he also noted that Justin Trudeau has made democratic reform a central pillar of his leadership and that his agenda has been enthusiastically endorsed by party rank and file thus far.

“Justin has indicated he’s open to new ideas, open to new directions if that makes the country stronger,” Goodale said.

Turnout in federal elections has plunged from a high of almost 80 per cent of eligible voters in 1958 to a record low of 58.8 per cent in 2008, according to Elections Canada. It rebounded slightly in 2011 to 61.1 per cent.

A byelection in June in the Alberta riding of Fort McMurray-Athabasca plumbed new depths: just over 15 per cent bothered to vote.

By contrast, turnout in Australia, where voting has been mandatory since 1924, averages about 95 per cent.

The Liberal caucus survey follows an analysis published last spring by one of Trudeau’s senior policy advisers, University of Ottawa academic Robert Asselin, who advocated mandatory voting and the introduction of preferential ballots as ways to re-engage Canadians in the political process.

The survey echoes Asselin’s proposed details for mandatory voting, noting that disenchanted or disinterested voters would still be able to choose “none of the above” and those who failed to cast ballots would receive only a “small fine.”

“I think they’re taking it seriously but it’s something that would be a big shift in our political culture,” Asselin said in an interview of the caucus’ sudden interest in the idea.

He acknowledged that mandatory voting is bound to be controversial and might even prompt a court challenge by electors who believe they have a fundamental right to refuse to cast ballots.

Allowing voters to choose none of the above or to spoil or decline their ballots would preserve electors’ right to refuse to vote, Asselin argued. A $20 fine — Australia imposes such a penalty on those who fail to cast ballots without good reasons — would be largely symbolic and rarely applied, he said.

“I think most people would accept and think it’s a good thing, as a civic duty, to be obliged to vote.”

Should Liberals officially adopt the idea, they would no doubt be denounced by the governing Conservatives, who abolished the mandatory long-form census on the grounds that Canadians should not be forced, under threat of jail time, to divulge private information to a government agency.

However, Goodale said opposition to mandatory voting would fuel suspicions that the Tories are more interested in suppressing votes than they are in improving the health of Canada’s democracy.

He noted that two judges have concluded there was an orchestrated campaign to direct non-Conservative voters to the wrong polling stations during the last election, although only one junior Tory staffer has been found guilty of taking part in such a scheme in Guelph, Ont.

During last year’s Liberal leadership race, Trudeau promoted Asselin’s other proposal for preferential ballots, whereby a voter’s second, third and subsequent choices are counted until one candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote.

He was opposed to a more elaborate system of proportional representation (PR), aimed at ensuring a party’s share of the popular vote is more accurately reflected in its share of seats in the House of Commons.

Since then, however, Trudeau has indicated a newfound willingness to at least consider proportional representation. Rank and file Liberals overwhelmingly endorsed a priority caucus resolution at their convention last February, which committed a Liberal government to creating an all-party process to consult on electoral reforms, including preferential ballots and/or PR.


Federal Liberals ponder mandatory voting

  1. So…. the Librano’s, being the paragons of the “pro-choice” crowd that they are, are again willing to throw individual liberty under the bus for no real good reason and take away the very simple freedom to choose not to vote. That’s about as fundamental as it can be. If people don’t want to come out to vote, how ya gonna stop ’em?

    • The Libidiots idea seems to be to fine non-voters.

    • I guess reading is not your forte. They are only proposing to force people to attend a polling station, not to cast a ballot.

  2. Let me start out by saying I have voted in every federal, provincial and municipal election for which I have been eligible to cast my vote for the past 45 or so years.

    I CHOOSE to do so.

    I also have the right to CHOOSE not to do so.

    If political parties and candidates cannot motivate the electorate to come out to vote, then get better party platforms and better candidates.

    This is a truly idiotic proposal but then this is the Justin Trudeau led Liberals so it is to be expected.

    It is also likely unconstitutional.

    While there is a right to vote there is no obligation to vote. As the SCOC has noted in religion cases, freedom of religion also guarantees freedom from religion. The same reasoning applies to voting.

    As far as Australia they do not have an entrenched Charter of Rights as the supreme law of the land so Parliament is free to do what it wants under the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy.

    We ditched parliamentary supremacy in 1982 with the patriation of our Constitution and bringing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into force.

    • I guess reading is not your forte, either. They are only proposing to force people to attend a polling station, not to cast a ballot.

  3. I’m on board. We talk about rights and freedoms a lot in this country, but everyone seems to have abandoned the idea of responsibilities. Voting is not just a right; it is a responsibility if we are to maintain a healthy democracy. A small fine would be largely symbolic but would help to drive home the importance of, and expectation of, voting.

  4. If mandatory voting is imposed, then democracy goes out the window. Those who do not hold any political opinion will vote arbitrarily, or for some unrelated reason.

    I knew a woman who voted for a candidate because he had the same surname as her father.

    Some will vote for the one who is most articulate, or perhaps for the one who is the best looking. Voting for frivolous or unrelated reasons is likely to skew the votes to the extent that in at least some cases, candidates will be elected which are not the people’s choice.

    • It is a much simpler theorem.

      The right to vote also must include the right to NOT vote.

      • The right not to vote? Interesting. How about the right not to pay taxes, or the right not to pay a parking ticket? Both are expected and mandatory. If they make us vote, then I’d expect governments to be all the more accountable.

  5. Pierre Trudeau must be turning over in his grave at such a proposed policy by his idiot son.

    An proper education is a good thing, too bad Justin did not get one.

    In BC the electorate has twice rejected a change from the first past the post system in referenda. The BC-STV (BC Single Transferrable Vote) proposed by a Citizen’s Assembly was rejected both times and with a greater plurality the second time around. That was despite strong support from the governing BC Liberals and in particular policy wonkinsh Premier Gordon Campbell.

    IIRC Ontario also rejected a similar change

    Federally there would be a constitutional problem in changing the electoral system IMHO that does not exist provincially as provinces can freely change their constitutions.

  6. The problem is not with Canada’s democracy, it is with the voters’ democratic responsibility. At least fifty percent of the population is disinterested, uninformed, covetous and likely to use the wrong criteria to exercise their democratic duty. We give real meaning to the words of the Greek sage who warned that “democracy is a system where ten fools hold sway over nine wisemen”. Just look at Ontario – a triumph of self-interest over public concern. But, after Ontario demonstrated how easy it is to skew our attempts to right political wrongs, it is no wonder that the federal Liberals are salivating over the prospect of mandatory voting. Imagine the malleable legions of clueless voters being herded into the booths to do permanent mayhem to common sense.

  7. I’m all in favour of mandatory voting, but maybe it shouldn’t be up to one single party or government to implement. It should be up to Elections Canada perhaps, although it’s pretty clear Elections Canada doesn’t have the necessary teeth to make that happen. Another reason that reform is necessary IMO.

  8. The right NOT to vote? Interesting. How about the right not to pay taxes, or the right not to pay a parking ticket? Both are expected and mandatory unfortunately. If they make us vote, then I’d expect governments to be all the more accountable.

Sign in to comment.