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Compulsory Voting: A Defence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 December 2018

Lachlan M Umbers*
University of New South Wales
*Corresponding author. Email:


Turnout is in decline in established democracies around the world. Where, in the mid-1800s, 70–80 percent of eligible voters regularly participated in US Presidential elections, turnout has averaged just 53.7 percent since 1972. Average turnout in general elections in the UK has fallen from 76.6 percent during the period 1945–92, to 64.7 percent since 1997. Average turnout in Canadian federal elections has fallen from 74.5 percent during the period 1940–79, to 62.5 percent since 2000. For most democrats, these numbers are a cause for alarm. Compulsory voting is amongst the most effective means of raising turnout. However, compulsory voting is also controversial. Most of us think that coercion may only be employed against the citizenry if it is backed by a justification of the right kind. Opponents of compulsory voting charge that no such justification is available. This article resists this line of argument in two ways. First, I offer an argument from free-riding which, though gestured towards by others, and widely criticized, has yet to be defended in any depth. Second, I consider a range of objections to compulsory voting as such, arguing that none succeeds.

© Cambridge University Press 2018

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