This month’s blog post – presented by Shane Singh of the University of Georgia – addresses the topic of compulsory voting, which remains widely-debated in the UK and overseas in connection with topics including voter behaviour, turnout, engagement, political parties and democratic rights. Dr Singh presents recent research findings on compulsory voting and its influence on political parties’ vote seeking strategies, with wider implications for questions of electoral integrity.
Compulsory voting is used in around 30 countries, many of which have only recently adopted the requirement to vote. Meanwhile, a number of countries have switched from mandatory to voluntary voting in recent years. In others, there are ongoing discussions over compulsory voting. This past holiday season, for example, Czech President Miloš Zeman called for obligatory voting during the traditional presidential Christmas address. The French government is currently mulling a multi-issue referendum in response to the gilets jaunes protests, with one of the potential questions asking whether voting should be made mandatory.
To this end, it is important that compulsory voting’s consequences are well understood. Compulsory voting has been a subject of academic and journalistic writing for centuries, but only in recent years have researchers begun to seriously examine its consequences beyond its obvious upward impact on turnout. It is now well known that compulsory voting increases turnout and generally makes voters more reflective of the entire electorate. There is also a burgeoning literature on the effects of compulsory voting on vote choices, the success of the left and right, political sophistication, and attitudes toward democracy. But, little is known about how compulsory voting shapes the behavior of political parties.
To help fill this void, in a recent article published in the American Journal of Political Science, I advance a theory about compulsory voting’s effects on parties’ vote seeking strategies. I argue that, due to their beliefs about the character of compelled voting populations, parties see more value in emphasizing their issue stances and ideological positions where voting is mandatory than where it is not. As a result, I predict that parties will pivot toward programmatic vote seeking strategies and away from clientelistic tactics, such as vote buying, under compulsory voting.
I test my predictions with three separate studies. In Study 1, I show that, across countries, compulsory voting is positively associated with programmatic vote seeking and negatively associated with vote buying. In countries with moderate compulsory rules, parties are more programmatic and are less likely to try and buy votes, and in countries where compulsory rules are strictly enforced and strongly sanctioned, parties are especially likely to seek votes programmatically and to shun vote buying.
In Study 2, I show that Thailand’s adoption of compulsory voting in 1997 boosted programmatic vote seeking. To do so, I construct a “synthetic” version of Thailand that counterfactually kept voluntary voting. Comparing trends between synthetic and real Thailand, I find that programmatism was nearly 60 percent higher in Thailand after its reform.
Finally, in Study 3, I show that compulsory voting in Argentina leads parties to avoid certain vote buying tactics. In Argentina, turnout is mandatory by law, but only for those aged 18-69; for individuals aged 16-17 and 70 and up, participation is optional. Thus, individuals around the ages of 18 and 70 are quasi-randomly assigned to compulsory and voluntary voting rules. Leveraging the younger cutoff age, I show that the predicted probability of receiving a positive vote buying offer (an offer of payment to change one’s vote intention) is about 41 percentage points lower among those subject to mandatory voting. However, I do not find evidence of effects for other types of vote buying.
While my findings update the understanding of the consequences of compulsory voting beyond turnout, they may also help to inform debates over compulsory voting’s impact on electoral integrity. Proponents of compulsory voting often argue that it is linked to cleaner elections. In line with these arguments, my finding of a link from compulsory voting to programmatic, as opposed to clientelistic, vote seeking suggests that compulsory voting could indeed enhance the integrity of elections.
Shane P. Singh is Associate Professor in the Department of International Affairs within the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. His web address is: https://www.shanepsingh.com/.