In a democracy like India, every adult has a legal right to cast their vote and elect a leader of their choice. But not everyone chooses to exercise this franchise, either unconvinced about the merits of the electoral process, or simply unwilling to make the effort to go out and vote. But with the Gujarat government recently passing a Bill that makes voting mandatory in local body elections, there’s the live possibility that a once voluntary act may become a legal obligation in future, inviting penalties if one abstains.

What is it? Compulsory voting is a system in which citizens are required by law to vote in elections or at least attend a polling place on voting day. If an eligible voter does not attend a polling place, he or she may be punished with fines or community service. In Gujarat, the penalties for not voting have not been clearly defined, though the Bill states that “defaulters” will be subject to disadvantages or consequences to be specified by rules to be made by the State government.

Globally, as many as 29 countries have experimented with compulsory voting. Presently, around 11 countries enforce these rules. For example, Australia and Belgium levy fines, while Brazil and Peru restrict access to state benefits and social security if one doesn’t vote. But Chile, Fiji, the Netherlands and Venezuela have abandoned compulsory voting

Why is it important? The argument in favour of compulsory voting is that it improves voter turnout and ensures that the democratic process is truly working. It prevents disenfranchisement of the socially disadvantaged, through bribes or covert threats. Studies also show a correlation between compulsory voting and improved income distribution too.

But in a political system where Members of Parliament have the right to abstain from voting for a Bill or even not to participate in a vote, one can question why ordinary citizens can’t have the same right. Indeed, you can argue that not voting is as valid an electoral choice as any other in a democracy. After all, don’t we have “None of the Above”, for those who are unhappy with all the politicians running for office?

Why should I care? If you complain long and hard about the state of the nation, but don’t prefer to actually visit the polling booth on election day, compulsory voting rules may force you to make the effort. Yes, it is true that compulsory voting in itself is somewhat anti-democratic, because the freedom to speak necessarily includes the freedom not to speak. In compulsory voting, there is a risk that people may vote at random simply to fulfil legal requirements. Similarly, citizens may vote with a complete absence of knowledge of any of the candidates.

There are also concerns over enforcement of this rule, on account of the sheer number of voters in India. For example, in Australia, an amount of $5,000 is spent per defaulter to levy a simple fine of $50 for not voting. If one considers the gargantuan size of the Indian voting population, a similar exercise could be prohibitive. The Election Commission itself has raised the question of whether millions of citizens can be penalised simply because they did not vote.

The bottomline This seems to be an idea whose time has not come. Doesn’t the Election Commission already have enough to do, grappling as it is with candidates with criminal records, money-for-vote scams and politicians who don’t declare their real assets?