Compulsory Voting: Does It Work?
On Monday, October 7th 2018, elections were held in Peru, where Peruvians voted for officials on the regional and municipal levels for governors, councillors, and mayors. Rather than proceeding like any regular work day, due to compulsory voting policies set in place throughout the country, workers were required to take the day off in order to vote. The consequence when failing to do so is a heavy fine.
This was the first time that I’ve ever seen an election day being treated as a holiday. Personally, I was excited to get a day off of work, but I was also curious about the practice of compulsory voting. This seemed like a perfect solution to some of the major issues that we have in North America – many blamed the election of President Donald Trump on the lack of voter participation, with only 58% of eligible voters casting their ballots in 2016. So, I wanted to know, does having mandatory voting policies have a meaningful impact upon the results of an election?
I decided to ask a friend of mine, Cielo Garay, my co-worker at the Peru Canada Chamber of Commerce (PCCC) and a local Peruvian who has observed the practice of compulsory voting her whole life, what she thought about the policies. She said it is good because, in theory, it is a true democracy – you get the true opinion of every person. On the other hand, it can be bad because there are people that are allowed to not vote, just by paying the fine and only rich people can do this. I found this to be very interesting I had previously thought that compulsory voting could play an important role in ensuring equal representation of the voting population in a country like Peru, where socioeconomic inequality is notoriously high. On this point, she notes the downsides to the practice; where many people are forced to vote even if they’re not informed. Politicians will go door-to-door and offer incentives to local communities in the form of gifts or bribes, and as a result, many people will vote for who they’re most familiar with, rather than for the politician who they believe is the best qualified.
According to Cielo, compulsory voting seems to reinforce a corrupt electoral process rather than a meaningful one.
Peru is notoriously known for its corrupt government, with several of its recent Presidents having been involved in huge corruption scandals. Most notably in Peru’s recent history are Fujimori (1990-2000) and Kuczynski (2016-2018). Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison for corruption and human rights violations, after having ordered killings, embezzled public funds, and bribed media outlets through abusing his power as president. Similarly, Kuczynski was involved in a scandal where videos were released that documented his alleged acts of vote buying, and receiving bribes from the Brazilian Odebrecht Corporation, notoriously known for bribing politicians to win public contracts.
On the topic of corruption, I was particularly interested in how the mining sector was affected. I am currently working with the Peru Canada Chamber of Commerce within the mining sector, and specifically the Chamber primarily deals with bilateral business relations between Canadian and Peruvian mining companies. While certainly, as the mining industry remains highly regulated by local governments, it is exposed to an environment that is prone to corruption – with ethically corrupt public officials and a weak internal political structure. Specifically, I was more curious to know how Peru’s corrupt reputation may have affected foreign interest in terms of investing in Peru. Naturally, corruption is a major concern for foreign investors, and when I asked Carla Martinez, the manager of the Peru Canada Chamber of Commerce’s mining sector, on how she thought Peru’s notoriously corrupt regime had impacted the inflow of investments into the mining sector, she said that she believes that the corruption in the government is giving Peru a bad reputation. Because of this, investments are going down – many companies are not confident in Peru, there are a lot of political problems and this is a big concern for foreign investors. As mining is Peru’s largest source of economic stimulation in terms of foreign investment this could potentially pose a big problem to the future of Peru’s economic growth.
It begs the question: how did such deeply entrenched government corruption come to pass?
It seems as though Peru’s corruption is the result of two dysfunctional qualities for an administration: inadequate governance and a societal tolerance to corruption. While Peru had seen an impressive economic growth as a result of a significant boom in foreign investment in the mining sector, the lack of control in terms of foreign financing tied with weak political figures that have allowed leaders to benefit from a corrupt system. Secondly, there is a societal attitude within Peru that allows corrupt politicians to engage in unethical activity with little to no consequences. Corruption is so ingrained in society that it is more suspicious for a candidate to not steal and to deliver, as it is believed to be more distrustful and unrealistic, versus a corrupt candidate that is generally associated with the provision of public goods. This coping mechanism is known as system justification, “which ameliorates cognitive dissonance and favours tolerance to corruption”.
I think that the answer to my initial question is the following: effective voting policies are only as effective as the government that enforces a transparent and anti-corrupt regime. While in the U.S, it seems as though a compulsory voting policy would have been beneficial to the elections in 2016, it cannot be said for certain that this would not have resulted in the exact same outcome as having only 58% of the eligible voting population vote. Corrupt governments and politicians seem to emerge regardless of the voting policy that is in place. Consequently, the solution to corruption in Peru is exactly opposite of what has previously been elected into office – strong institutions, strict policies, and ethical leadership.