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.