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Democracy or Else: voting compulsory in Gujarat state

There’s some irony in the recent news that in Gujarat state, that democracy will now be mandatory:

All registered voters in Gujarat will be required to vote. Those absent will be asked to submit a valid reason with proof within a month. The Bill empowers the election officer to declare people who do not vote defaulter voters.

A local editorial in favor of the law argues that with reduced voter participation, “the true spirit of the will of the people is not reflected in the electoral mandate”. The logic of the law, then, is that by forcing an increase in that voter share, you better approximate that “spirit of the will”. But will that actually make things any better? In any democracy you have to be an idealist, to believe in that magic aggregate with which your single vote will join and thus, together, make a difference. In India, with far greater dynamic range between rich and poor, it seems like the deliberations of the mighty are so far removed from the daily life experience of the average rickshaw wallah, that explaining how his vote will really matter seems a pointless excercise.


And there is some serious irony at work in the fact that this law is being promoted by Narendra Modi, whose role in orchestrating the 2002 pogrom against muslims in Gujarat undermined democracy far more than mere voter absence. When the machinery of the state can be abused by those in power with no checks and balances, and they actually get away with it (and are even “rewarded” electorally for it), then you have a banana republic with a democratic fig leaf.

More votes won’t magically erase the corruption and graft that infects the Indian body politic. It’s hard to be anything but cynical about this. Putting that aside, though, the general question of whether voting should be compulsory or not is an interesting question. According to the articles, 32 countries have adopted this law, and if all of India follows Gujarat’s lead, then this may become the rule to which America is the exception. Quite a contrast indeed with Western ideals, which have tried to limit the franchise to the white male elite, and the “lesser” classes and gender have had to fight for and paid dear price to win.


My personal instinct is that freedom cannot and should not be mandated. Perhaps this law throws the fundamental flaw of democracy into sharp relief – that there is nothing sacred, or inherently libertarian, about majority rule (a lesson learned from the Swiss minaret ban as well).

  • The Barking Unicorn, Denver, CO

    Voting is mandatory for registered voters, but what about registering? Seems like a way to discourage registration.
    And what happens to “defaulter voters”, if anything? Are there any teeth in this law?

  • Sahil

    First of all it is myth propogated by people that there is no force in democracy. In fact there are so many laws like reservation, number of seats represented by different states, etc. All these laws are made to effective functioning of democracy.
    Now think of mandatory voting, it is just one of those laws. After hundreds get killed in Mumbai and merely 45% of people come out to vote, it clearly indicates improper functioning of democracy. When one third of the seats go to the candidates with criminal cases, it is flawed democracy. All these demands greater participation from the citizens. Compulsory voting would play a big role in countering such issues.
    Lastly, just imagine that if this law was not passed by Modi but lets say, proposed by Rahul Gandhi, would everyone have reacted in the same way they are doing now?

  • Mu’adh

    It’s not actually as uncommon as you might expect, Australia and Belgium (and a third country which has slipped my mind) also have compulsory voting. In Aus. you get a fine for not voting. The obvious alternative for those not wanting to vote is to just fill in the form incorrectly, which has been the response to critics of compulsory voting.
    You’re definitely right though that the idea that majority rule automatically goes with liberty is a myth and certainly for minority groups it’s even more clear.

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