At a critical juncture in the history of this island, Éamon de Valera is reputed to have declared that “the people have no right to be wrong”. The comment arose following the election victory for the pro-treaty side in 1922. As history records, all hell broke loose soon afterwards in a savage civil war.
Today, the world as we know it is at a critical juncture. Strongmen are pointing fingers and shaking fists, and getting elected in countries around the world. The old order of liberal democracy, which has continued since the end of the Second World War is under threat. Life as the western world has known it for the last 70 years may be coming to an end.
Therefore, is it time to ask whether the people have any right not to be arsed about democracy? Is it time to tell people that the right to vote is to be heretofore considered a duty?
One of the features of the shock votes and elections of authoritarian figures in the last few years is that a minority has effectively taken control.
Take the two votes that are currently impacting greatest on this country. Brexit was actually voted for by 37% of the electorate in Britain, representing just over half of those who actually voted.
The fall-out has rendered Britain a nervous wreck. Vast quantities of energy and resources in the EU, and particularly in this country, have been taken up in dealing with the consequences. And all because a little over a third of those eligible to vote in Britain wanted out of Europe in some vague, undefined sense.
Look west at the (dis)United States. Little over a quarter of the electorate in the US voted for Donald Trump on a turnout of 58%. Even within the polled vote, he did not receive a majority, but that’s an anomaly of their system rather than any reflection on the numbers who voted.
One way or the other, it was a low-turnout election in which a quarter of those who have a vote managed to foist Mr Trump on their country, and on the world. And in a country where there is perpetual controversy over a voter registration system that prevents mainly minorities from voting at all.
Any analysis of these results in terms of voter turn-out is usually met with the glib response: “That’s democracy, suck it up”. Arguably, it is low voter turnout — usually as a result of disenchantment — that allows those way out from the centre to march in and capture the high ground of government or policy.
What if voting was more than just an option for citizens? What if everybody was obliged to turn up at a polling station as a matter of law?
There is, at this time in history, a compelling case to be made for compulsory voting. Australia is one of about a dozen countries where compulsory voting is law. Interestingly, the law was enacted in 1924 in response to a low turn-out at an election.
Somebody obviously noted that, less than a decade after the Great War and at a time when democracy was struggling for air in various corners of the world, including Ireland, the vote was something to cherish. It is mandatory for those who reach 18 years of age to register.
Anybody who fails to do their civic duty is fined, although the penalty is less than A$100 (€63.50). Still, the mere fact that it is the law pushes most people to actually engage on some basis in elections and show up at polling stations.
In western Europe, Belgium is the only country with compulsory voting. It was introduced in 1893. All Belgians — and registered non-nationals — are obliged to turn up at polling stations on election day. In a twist that certainly has some merit, nobody is forced to vote, but they must turn up and register attendance.
If, however, they fail to vote in four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years. Sure, the system is coercive, but at least it puts a value on the vote.
Nobody can be forced to cast a valid vote. There is no doubt that if compulsory voting was introduced in this country the level of spoiled votes would climb steeply. But so would the percentage of people voting, and by extension, the choices made would be far more representative of society in general.
Of course, there is no appetite to even engage in debate on the matter. For one thing, those who habitually don’t vote tend to be drawn from the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Any surge in voting in that sector would in all likelihood not favour the establishment parties in their current incarnations.
Compulsory voting might well also encourage a more diverse range of people to put their names forward and provide a platform for a new party outside the crowded centre — something else that wouldn’t be welcomed by those in situ.
Apart from that, there aren’t really any votes in compulsory voting. Why spend energy trying to persuade people to do something that might get their backs up?
One perceived barrier might be tackling the self-regarding archaic spirit of the Irish people. Are we more spiritually archaic than the Australians? Or is it a question that we simply can’t be arsed.
There would be legitimate concerns expressed about forcing citizens to do anything. But there comes a time when active citizenship should be considered over some abstract notion of libertarianism or laissez-faire democracy.
In any event, we do force citizens to perform their civic duty in another sphere. Jury duty is considered to be a vital part of the criminal justice system in a democracy. Nominally, citizens are obliged to attend or face prosecution. There are numerous ways in which citizens duck out of the duty — some of them being entirely excusable — but at least there is recognition that this civic duty requires the fidelity of the citizenry. Why couldn’t a similar attitude be adopted to voting for a representative parliament?
So far, we have been insulated from the wilder winds of change that have buffeted the US, Britain, and even the Eastern European countries where authoritarian figures are taking over.
That’s no guarantee for the future. This is a country that has opened up at a fast rate in recent decades, both economically and socially. If a vote were ever to see the electorate to take a sharp turn to the left or right, things could change fundamentally very quickly.
That’s democracy for you, but surely in a time of political turbulence, it would be prudent to ensure that any vote purporting to be the will of the people actually is just that.
At the very least the issue should be one up for debate. The obvious place for that would be a Citizens Assembly forum.