Does Compulsory Voting Increase or Decrease Corruption? (Preliminary Thoughts)

As Courtney discussed in yesterday’s post, Peru’s presidential elections are scheduled for next month, and issues of corruption loom large in the public debate. The role of corruption in Peruvian politics is such a rich and complex topic, one about which I must confess I know very little. But one feature of the Peruvian election system, about which I was previously ignorant, caught my attention during conversations at a fascinating meeting in Lima last month (sponsored by the Peruvian Controller General’s Office): In Peru, voting is compulsory–there are penalties for failing to vote. Compulsory voting requirements, while not exactly common, are enforced in quite a few democracies, including (in addition to Peru) Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cyprus, Ecuador, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Nauru, Singapore, and Uruguay. Some sub-national jurisdictions (such as the Indian state of Gujarat and the Swiss canton Schaffhausen) have compulsory voting, and there are also several countries that had compulsory voting at some point in their history, but have since abolished it (including, for example, Italy, the Netherlands, and Venezuela). In the United States, President Obama himself has suggested that the U.S. should consider some form of compulsory voting.

What does this have to do with corruption? Well, that’s actually the question I want to explore in this post. Although there’s a small political science literature on compulsory voting, there seems to be very little sustained discussion of the implications of compulsory voting for corruption control. (There is a bit, some of which I’ll mention below, but usually the mentions are brief and in passing.)

I’ll readily admit I don’t know much about this topic, but it seems to me an interesting question, and I can see a few arguments cutting both ways. So, without reaching any firm conclusions, let me first sketch out a few reasons why compulsory voting might reduce corruption, and then suggest a few reasons why compulsory voting might increase corruption.

Starting with reasons that compulsory voting might reduce corruption:

  • First, if those who would not otherwise vote are more likely to care more about corruption—and are more likely to vote against candidates or parties perceived to be corrupt—then compulsory voting could indeed increase the extent to which democratic accountability deters corruption. For example, if it is true (as is sometimes asserted) that poorer voters are disproportionately harmed by corruption, and if turnout rates are generally lower among poorer voters, then compulsory voting—if effective in increasing turnout rates among poor voters—would have a corruption-reducing effect. Similarly, in some cases it seems that voters who are most disgusted with corruption are also most likely to disengage from the political process entirely. Such voters, if compelled to vote, might be more likely to cast their votes against a corrupt incumbent. (For a version of this argument, see here.)
  • Second, compulsory voting may help address corruption in those countries where vote buying is a significant problem (both as a form of corruption in itself, and as a facilitator of other forms of corruption). The logic here is that as the size of the electorate increases, so too does the cost of buying a sufficient number of voters to swing the election. Suppose, for example, that in a jurisdiction of 10,000 eligible voters, typically only 10% actually vote. Suppose further that 48% of the jurisdiction is inclined to favor the (corrupt) incumbent, while 52% are inclined to support the challenger. Assuming for the moment that the voters are a representative sample of the electorate, that would mean that the incumbent would have to buy 21 opposition votes to win. But if voting is compulsory, the incumbent would have to buy 201 votes, which is more expensive. This is obviously an unrealistic stylized example, but it’s meant to illustrate the intuitive idea that vote buying is a more expensive proposition in a larger electorate. (See, for example, here, here and here.)
  • Third, some forms of electoral corruption—or semi-/quasi-corrupt activities, like clientalism—are not about buying votes so much as about buying turnout: That is, politicians may offer improper benefits (or accept improper contributions, perhaps with strings attached) not to convert opponents into supporters, but to induce supporters to actually go to the polls (or, in some cases, paying opponents to stay home). If this sort of behavior is an important form or cause of corruption, then compulsory voting obviously helps redress this problem.

On the other hand, I can also think of several reasons why compulsory voting might actually increase corruption:

  • First, there’s some evidence that one reason voters may support corrupt politicians, despite the fact that voters repeatedly indicate that they dislike corruption, is that many voters lack information about evidence of politician’s corruption. Such “low-information” voters may also be more inclined to vote on the basis of name recognition, local ties, or other factors. Furthermore, there is some suggestive evidence that a strong interest in politics correlates with disapproval of bribe-taking by public officials; it’s likely that political interest also correlates with participation in elections, when voting is not compulsory. If compulsory voting substantially increases the number of relatively uninformed voters, and/or voters with little political interest, who participate in the election, then credible corruption allegations may actually become less likely to determine the election outcome, and reduce the deterrent effect of democratic accountability. (For suggestions along these lines see here.)
  • Second, in addition to increasing the number of low-information or apathetic voters, compulsory voting may increase the number of voters who care relatively less about corruption as an issue. Above I suggested the possibility that low-income voters may be more inclined to vote against a politician perceived to be corrupt. This may be true, but it is not obviously so. Moreover, some research suggests that more educated voters (who are likely to have higher turnout rates) may be more likely to disapprove of bribe-taking or other forms of corruption. Another demographic factor to consider is age: Numerous studies indicate that older individuals have lower tolerance of corruption, and in many countries (for example, the United States), older voters have higher turnout rates. If compulsory voting increases the participation of younger, more corruption-tolerant voters, then (putting aside for the moment any other effects of increasing political participation by young people) corruption allegations may have less of an adverse effect on politicians’ electoral chances.
  • Third, though perhaps a less significant consideration, since compliance with the compulsory voting requirement is likely to be imperfect, the existence of the requirement may itself engender certain forms of petty corruption, as when individuals who failed to vote offer bribes to officials in exchange for (perhaps retroactively) adding them to voter rolls or otherwise providing benefits to which the citizens might not be entitled due to their failure to vote. This problem is most likely to appear when enforcement systems are weak and the penalties for non-voting include lack of eligibility for certain public benefits, rather than a simple fine.

So, it seems to me that the arguments here are fairly complicated. The empirical evidence, such as it is, doesn’t really resolve the question. The political scientist Sarah Birch found that countries with compulsory voting have better scores on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, when controlling for per capita GDP and region, but as critics have pointed out, a range of other factors (such as country size and ethnic diversity) might explain the correlation, and in any event the correlation itself doesn’t necessarily tell us much about causation (because it’s possible that less corrupt countries are more likely to adopt compulsory voting). More generally, given the sorts of factors sketched above, the relationship between compulsory voting and corruption is likely to be highly context specific, depending (for example) on how the composition of the voting population (under non-compulsory voting) differs from the composition of the whole electorate. I still need to chew these issues over a bit more, but I hope that some of our readers might be able to offer some additional insights.

6 thoughts on “Does Compulsory Voting Increase or Decrease Corruption? (Preliminary Thoughts)

  1. Nice summary of the issues. I can’t help with insights on the matter — only another question.

    What does the research say about the phenomenon of those voting for candidates where the evidence of corruption is uncontestable? I am thinking in particular of James Traficant. He was a U.S. Congressman from Ohio that was expelled from the House of Representatives and later convicted of taking bribes. While serving time for his crime, he ran for his old seat as an independent, receiving 28,045 votes, or 15 percent of the total. He is just the most recent of several individuals to run for a federal office from prison.

    Is voting for corrupt candidates a specific example of what might be called the “Mussolini” factor? Despite all his warts, respectable Italians voted for him because he promised to make the trains run on time. Come to think of it, isn’t there a current example of such a candidate running in one of the “advanced” democracies?

    Maybe Lincoln’s famous observation about fooling people is where the analysis starts: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” What percentage of the people can you fool “all the time”? For how long can you “fool all the people some of the time”?

  2. I think this is an incredibly interesting issue, and one I’ll continue to chew on. I do want to push back a tiny bit on the cost of vote buying/turnout buying point, however.

    I think the cost of buying an INDIVIDUAL vote is likely to go down in a compulsory voting system for two reasons. First, there’s no need to compensate voters for the opportunity cost of voting (as opposed to not voting) in a compulsory system. It’s not as though voters could have been working or engaging in leisure activity instead. (It’s also interesting to think about how the fine associated with not voting could lower the cost further still). Second, assuming voters who wouldn’t vote absent a requirement to do so are more likely to be ambivalent between candidates, the cost of “converting” them to vote for a particular candidate will presumably be lower than the cost of converting a voter with an existing preference. Of course, unless the conversation cost is zero, the overall cost goes up regardless of how you feel about my second point. Further, overall change in the volume of voting may well overcome my first point. I think it’s worth keeping in mind, however, if we are thinking about the magnitude of the effect (in addition to its direction).

    I’d also add to your list of factors the closely related cost of voter suppression. If people are being paid not to show up at all in a non-compulsory system, then a switch to a compulsory system could make this kind of suppression more difficult.

    • Upon a closer read, I’ve noticed you made the point about suppression. Apologies. I also wonder if voter suppression wouldn’t have a higher social/political cost in a compulsory system than a non-compulsory one. While any suppression is going to look like a gross effort to undermine the electoral processes, in a society that has made the moral/legal statement that every citizen must vote, this behavior would seem to me to look especially outrageous.

    • Very interesting thoughts on how compulsory voting could decrease the price-per-vote, even if it increases the total number of votes one would need to buy to swing the election. I need to think this through a bit more, but some quick preliminary thoughts:

      On your first point, I think I basically agree with the analytical point, but I’m not sure how much the point matters. If the corrupt politician wants to pay to switch the vote of someone who would have voted anyway, compulsory voting won’t change the price (because that voter doesn’t need to be compensated to turnout). For turnout-buying of supporters, the corrupt politician would indeed need to pay them to compensate for the opportunity cost of voting, but not to switch their vote. I think your point here only applies to voters who (A) would not vote without either compulsory voting or a bribe, and (B) conditional on voting, would vote for the other candidate unless paid off. For these voters, it’s indeed true that they’re cheaper to buy under compulsory voting. I’m not convinced that this category is all that important, though I could well be wrong about this.

      Your second point is well-taken, though again I think it only applies to voters who BOTH wouldn’t vote without compulsory voting or a bribe, AND would be inclined to vote for the other candidate. I suppose that if the cost of getting these voters to the polls is very large relative to the cost of getting them to change their votes, but the voters who would vote anyway are hard to sway even with very large payments, then it’s possible that compulsory voting could reduce the total cost of vote buying. The idea would be that with discretionary voting, it’s really expensive to get the actual voters to change their minds, and really expensive to get non-voters to participate (and vote for you). But, with compulsory voting, it might be relatively cheap to get some of those less-engaged citizens, who otherwise wouldn’t have voted at all, to vote for you instead of the other guy. And maybe it would even be cheaper on net to pay off enough of them to swing the election, even though the total number of votes to buy would be much higher. Yeah, I can see it… but it seems less empirically plausible at first blush.

      • I had the same initial thoughts as Courtney on the price of vote-buying under a compulsory voting scheme. It is true that the reduction in cost “only applies to voters who (A) would not vote without either compulsory voting or a bribe, and (B) conditional on voting, would vote for the other candidate unless paid off.” However, I think this will be an extremely large group of people. Suppose it is a close election, roughly 50-50 and that turnout absent compulsory voting would also hover around 50%. That would put a full quarter of the electorate into the relevant category — a huge number of potentially cheap votes.

        I wonder if requiring a large number of apathetic voters to head to the polls would create an auction dynamic, where both campaigns, seeing them as a potential source of cheap votes, bid against each other, driving up the price.

        As a final side note, if we (falsely) decide that all humans are rational and that the opportunity cost for voting is 0, I don’t agree that increasing the size of the electorate would increase the cost of buying the election. Presumably winning the election is worth a set amount, and voters in a smaller pool would demand more to buy their vote because it is ‘worth’ more than it is with more voters. In Peru, this would be analogous to the fact that there were only a few television stations did not drive down the cost of Fujimori bribing them, but in fact may have driven it up.

  3. It does seem plausible that compulsory voting could increase the proportion of low-information voters if all else remained equal, although the opposite result could also plausibly happen with the change to compulsory voting. If voting is required of everyone, every member of the voting population would have a reason to become informed about the political climate or about individual candidates, knowing far in advance that they will be required to participate. In non-compulsory systems like in the U.S., much of a campaign’s energy is spent on registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns. On election days, it is not substantive issues I hear being discussed but messages reminding me to vote. This could be a stretch, but knowing a vote is compulsory could also plausibly encourage more information-sharing on less prominent elections. Since every voter (aside from those who have just reached the voting age) will have experienced a ballot in the past, each person would know that more than one vote is available to him or her. If you have to take the time to go to a polling place anyway, the extra effort to gain even a small amount of information on the election makes that trip more palatable. For those who really don’t care about the result, donkey voting would allow truly apathetic voters to participate without having any effect on the outcome of an election.

    Compulsory voting also might allow streamlined information sharing, at least at one point—candidates can share their message with all voters at once through polling place advocacy. If low-information voters are indeed a concern, presumably some last-minute education could offer awareness to those who are wholly uninformed. Anecdotally from seeing a polling place in Australia, each party on the ballot was able to offer a short brochure to voters, who faced a fairly lengthy wait before voting. Many of the people in line did appear to read at least some content. If ongoing support for candidates convicted of corruption is a concern, the ability to deliver a simple message (“This candidate is taking bribes!”) in a short timeframe to the whole voting population is quite powerful, even if there are concerns about how many voters will care.

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