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Different voting systems, different commitment

Voting is the foundation of every democratic system. It allows people to have a voice and to choose the candidate they believe will be their best representative. However, how can we determine what is the voting system that maximises voter turnout? How can we fight prejudices and guarantee the right of voting to everyone?

Types of Voting Systems All around the world, we’re faced with different voting systems. Let’s analyse two examples: Take the case of Brazil. Since 2006, Brazil has had a voter turnout close or higher than 80% in both parliamentary and presidential elections. When compared to other countries, for instance, Portugal (a country with low turnout rates), the whole idea seems surprising. First of all, Brazil has mandatory voting for those aged between 18 and 69, including the ones that, are out of the country. This mainly means that, if a person eligible to vote fails to do so, then they will have to pay a small fee (unless there is a valid justification). Moreover, Brazil’s minimum voting age is 16. Nowadays, 16- to 18-year-olds represent around 2.3% of the Brazilian electorate. In addition, FairVote, an American nonpartisan institution, concluded that 16- and 17-year-olds are more likely to be politically active when older than young people who only start voting at the age of 18 or 19.

Every day, we are given news about the United States, whether in political or social grounds. However, how many of us know how the American voting system really works? The United States has around 328.2 million people. Out of those, there are around 247 million citizens with legal voting age. Although no one can be denied voting, among many reasons, there aren’t 247 million people eligible to vote. This happens mainly due to two main reasons. On the one hand, some states prohibit voting to some convicted criminals, either for some time or even forever. On the other hand, under incompetence laws, thousands of people lose their right to vote in 39 states. The particularity about the American voting system is that people need to register in order to be able to vote. So, being eligible isn’t enough. Nowadays, due to the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, individuals can register in a lot of physical places, like schools and libraries, but also by mail. There are also some states which allow people to only register on Election Day. The fact that people need to register to vote can be considered a barrier for a high voter turnout. In the 2016 elections, out of all eligible voters, only 70.3% registered to do so. It might seem a high number. However, this means that almost 30% of them didn’t feel the need to go voting. Out of the registered ones, there were still almost 9% of people who didn’t vote. We can conclude that most of those who register do, in fact, vote, but those who don’t even take that first step are still a considerable amount of people. Purpose The purpose of the voting system should be trying to maximise voter influence with a simple and clear system where all the voters and politicians understand the process. It is also important to reach as much participation as possible in order to get reflected in the government the maximum interests of the population. Since one of the purposes is to maximise the participation, would it be a good idea to implement the mandatory voting and reflect everyone interests?

Mandatory Voting The Mandatory voting is a system in which everyone who is eligible to vote must carry out the duty to do so. Otherwise, penalties like small fees can be applied. A research done by IDEA, Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, showed that, out of 203 countries, only 13% had compulsory voting, 85% don’t have it and 2% don’t have elections at all. As for the voter turnout, the same organisation concluded that the average percentile difference in turnout between countries with mandatory voting and the ones without it was around 7.37%, after 2010.

The main argument in favour of this type of voting is that it increases the legitimacy of the elected representatives, since they truly represent the will of the people. It is highly improbable that the candidate who wins does not do so without the majority of people’s votes. They also argue that, since a democracy is said to be governed by people, then every citizen should have the duty and responsibility to elect their representatives.

However, most people against mandatory voting state that the whole idea of that type of voting is not consistent with the freedom people associate with democracy. The enforcement of the law in this situation could be infringement and, in more extreme cases, as a source of oppression. Apart from all the arguments and discussions, the truth is that some of the countries with mandatory voting do not and have no intention to enforce that laws. In some, the only purpose of the laws is to make known the government’s position on that matter.

The Behavioural Economics contribution Mandatory voting can help most citizens who believe they should vote to do so, thereby functioning as a precommitment mechanism. This means that mandatory voting can help people from making easy, habitual, lazy, emotional, or poorly-thought-out decisions, working in the same way as a nudge. This is the case of Brazil. Those who do not vote in an election and do not later present an acceptable are subject to a fine of R$3.51 which is about US $0.65. This means that it is a symbolic fine and it only exists to encourage people to go to polling stations and not actually to punish those who do not vote.

Mandatory voting does not exist in the US. However, nudging has been a way for the government to encourage people to register to vote. In 2012, the campaign for re-election of Barack Obama consisted of asking people for their commitment to vote. The campaign team distributed “Commit to vote” symbolic card which contained Obama’s face and asked supporters if they would sign it. This had the goal of creating a pre-commitment, and encouraging to vote, the same goal as Brazil. Additionally, some organisation during the same election also handed and mailed out “Voter Report Cards” showing people their voting activity over the last five years and comparing it with the neighbourhood average turnout rate. This a simple and effective way of using social pressure to nudge people to vote.

Is the place to vote relevant?

To improve the participation, it is also really important to offer several voting places to make it easier for the population. Nowadays, a large part of the elections is voted physically in public spaces such as schools, but also in embassies and consulates when you are not in your country and even by mail. In most of the elections, many people have difficulties to vote due to their mobility problems, and that is something that governments should work on.


-Business Insider: “Obama's Media Planner Tells Us The 5 Most Important Ad Tactics from The Presidential Campaign” 12 November 2012

-Nickerson, D., Rogers, T., “Do You Have a Voting Plan? Implementation Intentions, Voter Turnout, and Organic Plan Making”, Psychological Science 21(2) 194–199, 2010

-Elliott, Kevin. (2017). Aid for Our Purposes: Mandatory Voting as Precommitment and Nudge. The Journal of Politics. 79. 000-000. 10.1086/690711. - KFF. 2016. Number of Voters and Voter Registration as a Share of the Voter Population. [online] Available at: <https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/number-of-voters-and-voter-registration-in-thousands-as-a-share-of-the-voter-population/?currentTimeframe=1&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Number%20of%20Registered%20Voters%20(in%20thousands)%22,%22sort%22:%22desc%22%7D>

Written by: Joana Alfaiate, Maria Sofia Murça, Xavier Borsot

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