This is principally a response to, according to CL, “[s]imply the most deranged rant I’ve read for months. And it’s by a ‘Liberal.’
If a right indicates anything it is the freedom to do/ say or refrain from doing/ saying this rather than that. This is abundantly clear where we are thinking of the right of association. Such a right plainly means the right to be or not to be a member of this or that voluntary, intermediate, association whether that association is a church, business or trade association, sporting club, trade union, and so on. To impose such membership upon an individual, thus not making this a decision of his/ her own, is to dissolve the link between belief and conduct. To oblige a citizen to be member of any or all of these associations would be deemed undemocratic. The same should, of course, be true where it involves the right to vote as, indeed, it is.
It has been said, as a means of circumventing this argument, that we are not obligated to vote so much as obligated to attend a voting booth. Not only this, but that the government, “critically, does not mandate what one must do” once we are in the voting booth. Both these arguments are related and specious. No one would take either argument seriously if it was applied to any of our other rights. If the law obligated us to attend and participate in religious services – I’m thinking of freedom of religion here and not of association – but did not obligate us to believe anything that was said therein, no one would regard this as at all a serious defense, let alone as preserving the link between belief and conduct. Further, the claim that because such a law also did not obligate us to attend any particular religious service but left such a decision to each citizen, we would still not find this a remotely satisfactory defense of such an obligation or as preserving the link between belief and conduct.
As I said in a previous comment, the claim that such a law “critically, does not mandate what one must do” has an Oakeshottian ring to it. He believed that laws adverbially qualify our actions, so when driving the law adverbial qualifies, within reason, how we drive. So, it follows, that the rules of the road oblige us to drive on the left or right and not over the speed limit or significantly below it, and so on, but they don’t suggest what destination we must travel to when driving. So far, so good, however, Oakeshott importantly also argued that these adverbial qualifications, like the rules of the road do not command us to drive, to register to drive, to be at such and such an intersection on a particular day, or even to drive on a particular day, but this is precisely what our system of compulsory voting requires of us. Laws, properly understood, are not commands but rules that adverbially qualify an action or utterance of our own choosing. So compulsory voting is not only completely out of character with the nature of a right, it also goes beyond what any typical law requires of us; so much so that compulsory voting subverts both law and right.
It would probably be remiss of me not to address the substantive argument typically made by proponents of compulsory voting as a counter to the above; namely, that political participation is a public good that would materially suffer under a system of voluntary voting and that this would unduly harm the interests of those most marginalised and not coincidentally least likely to vote in such a system. There is something to said for this argument but it does not, I think, defeat the criticisms raised above. Political participation is certainly a public good but there are a number of public goods that we do not enforce by means of law. Marriage is a public good, but it is no where compulsory. There is also something to be said against this argument; those least likely to vote are also likely to be the least informed about politics and there are very good reasons why we should not be press-ganging those least informed into a voting booth because they are easy prey for demagogues.