Voters in this weekend’s elections in Uruguay and Brazil have something in common: They are legally required to cast a ballot. Both countries have compulsory voting, under which failure to vote is punishable by a fine. Roughly 30 countries, and nearly a fifth of electoral democracies, have some form of national compulsory voting law on the books, though only some of these laws are enforced. And of these countries, 13 of them are in Latin America.
With compulsory voting laws in about half of its countries, Latin America has by far the highest concentration of such laws on any continent. “It’s been a contentious and hotly debated question,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, an organization focused on Western Hemisphere affairs, told me by email. “Advocates believe a full democracy needs to respond to the views and interests of all citizens. ... Of course, the chief argument against compulsory voting is that it contradicts the freedom associated with democracy.”
These kinds of arguments are presumably applicable all over the world, so why is compulsory voting so prevalent in Latin America specifically?
Compulsory Voting Around the World
In a 2010 paper, Gretchen Helmke and Bonnie Meguid of the University of Rochester investigated the origins of compulsory voting laws and the factors that could motivate a ruling party to adopt them. Comparing countries that instituted mandatory voting laws with a random sample of countries that didn’t, they found support for the theory that “the more incumbents fear that they are losing the ability to get their own voters to the polls, the more appealing an antidote compulsory voting will be. In essence, the decision to adopt [compulsory voting] is based on the incumbent’s wager that abstaining voters are the equivalent of untapped supporters.”