Forced to be Free

Mandatory Voting in Belgium

Originally published in The Tech on November 4, 2008

“Now shut up and do what I say: express yourself, go and vote!”

This is the skewed, illogical logic behind Belgium’s voting laws — which have been mandatory since 1892 — and what the government has been telling its people as it drags them on a leash to the polling stations at the time of national elections.

Actually, it only has to drag a rebellious minority (like me) as most Belgians tend to support this system, according to various opinion polls and my own unofficial survey of my compatriots.

“It does force people to think a bit about politics and our society. It forces people to think about whom to vote for and to form an opinion,” writes a Flemish girlfriend to me in an e-mail. “It gives an easy incentive to people who would only care a bit but don’t want to put too much effort into it, that is, the people who wouldn’t want to go through the paperwork to register like in the US, to think a little. It’s easy to vote in Belgium, you just show up, it takes five minutes.”

But what kind of thinking can one do at gunpoint? How informed and genuine can it be if it is manipulated from the top? ‘Forced thinking’ … it sounds funny, not to say tragic.

As I watch Americans deciding not only who to vote for in the Nov. 4 election, but also whether or not to vote in the first place, I cannot help but ponder this dilemma and question my little country’s strong-handed democratic practices.

Indeed, at the heart of the debate is the very definition of democracy. Although it comes in various forms and varieties, democracy is based on two core principles: it is all-inclusive, giving equal access to power to all those involved, and it guarantees universally recognized freedom and liberties.

As for democratic governance, here too there are numerous models, but most fall within three categories: direct, deliberative, and election-centered, with some democratic systems combining elements of the three.

Belgium, a constitutional, popular monarchy and parliamentary democracy — and as I write still up to its neck in communitarian tensions between the French- and Flemish-speaking parties and heated negotiations for state reform — favors the election-based system of democracy.

By far the most familiar model of democratic legitimacy, it rests on the election of public officials to make and enforce laws. But why does Belgium make this ‘freedom to vote’ — ‘It is a freedom we have fought for,’ goes the argument — compulsory?

Participating in national elections is considered a right of citizenship by most democratic governments. But why is Belgium, with a handful of other countries such as Austria and Australia, pushing this right down people’s throats?

Some democratic governments take it further and see this participation as a citizen’s civic responsibility. Fair enough. But some of them force this concept upon their people with compulsory voting. And it is when some of these ‘democracies’ impose sanctions for not voting that go from fines to imprisonment that you start to seriously scratch your head.

In Belgium, a voter who does not return to the ballot boxes may face a fine ranging from 25 to 125 euro, depending on whether there is repetition. Not presenting oneself in four elections within 15 years may lead to disenfranchisement, which amounts to an infringement of civil rights. Refraining from voting may also lead to various forms of discrimination, such as difficulties in getting a job within the public sector.

Although I cannot cite specific cases that I know of, failure to pay one’s fines will result in a notice of possible imprisonment.

To be fair, entering a polling booth is mandatory, but marking a ballot paper is not. So there is the option of not voting by handing in an empty or an invalid vote. But after the election, a list of all those who didn’t present themselves is sent to the office of the public prosecutor. Continued non-attendance can result in being barred from the electoral list for 10 years, and thus becoming ineligible for a nomination, distinction or promotion by a public authority. Explanations for a decent reason for absence, such as on medical or religious grounds, however, may be accepted.

Now, with the added ‘Big Brother’ capacities of technology, non-participation is impossible. As a Brussels-based Belgian friend and high school teacher told me by phone: “The machine swallows up your ID card and doesn’t give it back until you are done. There is no escaping it.”

Why such tactics and threats to ensure that citizens perform their civic duties? Can’t they be trusted to do the right thing, make the right, mature decisions?

Turnout is the culprit — so to speak … Or rather, its overt nature is. Voter turnout figures provide the most obvious way to measure political engagement, and its ability to generate headlines may well make some of the participating parties fret.

Essentially, the purpose of Belgium’s obligatory voting laws is to fulfill the democratic ideal of full representation: to make the vote possible for all, including the poor, and ensure diversity in Parliament. If the vote was not compulsory, only a wealthier and more educated minority would be more likely to vote, the reasoning goes. In a country of 10 million, such considerations matter, proponents say.

But such thinking does not account for ‘donkey voting,’ numbering the candidates’ boxes sequentially from top to bottom, or scribbling some unintelligible signs or insults on the ballot-paper. ‘Protest’ or ‘random’ votes, checking off a candidate at random to get one’s ‘duty’ out of the way, is often the recourse of those voting against their free will. Studies show that such voters are likely to check the top candidate, and in Belgium such votes have boosted the ratings of the extreme right Vlaams Belang party.

Although I applaud protest voting as an act of defiance as the practice casts doubt over the legitimacy of the democratically elected government, it fosters a culture of irresponsible, at times dishonest and counter-productive behavior.

People who don’t like to be told what to do may also be inclined to vote against those who are making them go out to vote, i.e. the government. Another counter-productive and falsely representative response.

Another strong argument of those in favor of compulsory voting is its educational effect: that it engages people who would not otherwise bother learning about — and taking part in their country’s politics. But shouldn’t education on civic life start in the classroom, in a free, open environment and be enjoyed rather than enforced? I do not recall any civic classes in the 12 years I spent in Belgium’s educational system, including primary and high school. If ‘educating’ us mattered, wouldn’t this have been otherwise?

It is also glaringly obvious that in such a system, appearances matter more than genuine substance, as compulsory voting makes the governing party appear more legitimate. Instead of tackling the problem of political disengagement, this engineered support of a larger proportion of the population covers it.

The biggest misstep such voting laws make, however, is the fact that they trample on democracy’s other core principle: freedom. The right to vote includes the right not to vote, the freedom to be apolitical. Similarly, the right to vote does not come with an obligation to take action upon one’s voting. The oft-cited argument that disgruntled citizens who refrain from voting should stop complaining is alarming. Whining and criticizing are part of freedom of expression and voicing such discontent does not come with the obligation to participate in fixing the issues in question.

Applying such flawed logic on a global scale, including in authoritarian regimes, would come at high risks for the complainer/dissenter: criticizing the Russian or Burmese government among one’s circles or online is one thing, picking up one’s pitchforks to go and face the state police’s truncheons on the streets is an entirely different thing. It is easy for those sitting in stable and comfy countries to call for more active, practical involvement from the people, but the conditions for safe participation are not uniform and prevalent across the planet.

Most insulting of all in the compulsory voting system is the patriarchal, condescending and dictatorial attitude of the government towards its citizens, whom it sees as too immature and irresponsible to make their own decisions. It is based on negative assumptions about the people – that once left to their own devices, they will stay at home and won’t vote. In other words, it is based on distrust. The government doesn’t trust its people to make the right decisions. And without trust, what can there be? …

Hold on, I have only told half of the story. As is common with most countries that have compulsory voting laws in place, Belgium only weakly enforces its compulsory vote. As in countries that offer loopholes, many non-voters in Belgium go unpunished, despite the clearly stated and publicized sanctions. Despite these laws, the level of absenteeism in the last couple of elections hovers around 9 percent, with 9.7 percent in the June 2007 election. A close reading of the legislation reveals that non-attendees can face sanctions.

You heard right. That’s selective application of the law. Like in Russia, or similar authoritarian regimes. Nice.

What most Belgians make out of this is that the government uses these mandatory voting laws mostly as a deterrent to non-attendance. Although the authorities do keep track of non-attendance, sanctions are only loosely applied. The threat of receiving fines and other sanctions and discriminations is what makes many a citizen go out and vote, as my own Belgium-based connections have confirmed by phone for this story.

So to sum up, the Belgian government uses fear to control and manipulate the electorate — hardly a recipe for a mature, functional relationship between the government and the governed, and for a healthy democracy.

I am all for performing one’s civic responsibilities, but those duties should not be inculcated with rules and whips, with force and sanctions, as does the current election-based model of Belgium, which keeps the electorate out of policy-making.

Instead, why not apply the laws of a direct or deliberative democracy, in which people participate directly in the very making of these civic duties, laws and policies? A discussion-based involvement of the people in law-making can only lead to increased and genuine engagement, and respect.

Only when my government stops spanking me will I ever be able to respect it.