"How can a voter be compelled? Can he be compelled physically to go to polling booths?”

In April 2009, a Supreme Court bench asked just this of Atul Sarode, who had filed a public interest litigation arguing that voting should be made mandatory. Sarode said defaulters should be penalised by having access to civic amenities like water and power cut off. The court dismissed Sarode’s petition, observing that such a step would be both impractical and profoundly undemocratic.

But late last month, the Supreme Court took a different view while hearing a PIL filed by Muzaffarnagar resident Satya Prakash. Sharing the petitioner’s concern over voter turnouts, the court issued notices to the Centre and Election Commission, asking how they could ensure maximum voting in the polls.

It was a strange decision, given that the 2014 general elections saw a record voter turnout of 66.4%, and that most functioning democracies would envy such a high percentage of voters. But even if we put that aside, compulsory voting raises a number of larger questions.

Lihphart's suggestion

The Western experience of declining electoral participation prompted the political scientist Arend Lijphart to suggest the idea of compulsory voting in an address to the American Political Science Association, in 1996. He was not the first, but coming from one of the star democratic theorists of the world, it created a stir. Lijphart’s formulation was born out of dismay, and he took pains to point out that various other institutional factors – proportional representation, ease of registration and poll timings – were likely to be more effective in getting voters to the booths.

Lijphart also differentiated between compulsory voting and mandatory attendance at the polls. For instance, in the Netherlands the law mandates only compulsory attendance; no one is compelled to vote. This is something the debate in India seems to be overlooking.

Advocates of compulsory voting ask that voting be made a legally enforceable duty. Yet instead of augmenting democracy in the country, as the petitioners seem to think it will, this is instead a highly undemocratic measure, and an infraction of a citizen’s basic rights. The Dinesh Goswami committee, in 1991, and the Justice JS Verma panel last year both recommend that voting should be, at best, a non-enforceable fundamental duty, under Article 51A of the constitution.

The principle of universal adult suffrage neither implies nor presupposes a bounded duty to vote. It is limited only to a citizen’s entitlement to cast a vote.

In each of the countries that Satya Prakash cites as having mandatory voting, the electorate has the right to cast a negative vote and say no to all the candidates. In India this is known as exercising the NOTA option – the None of the Above option. It should also be pointed out that in each of these countries it is not voting that is mandatory but going to the polls. Then the citizen is free to choose whether to vote for a candidate or no one at all.

The right to say no

In a ruling on 27 September, 2013, in PUCL v Union of India, the Supreme Court emphasised the citizen’s right to say no. The right to vote is a statutory right under the Representation of the People Act 1951 – but it is also an inalienable part of the fundamental right to freedom of expression. And freedom of expression is meaningless without the right to either silence or dissent. In paragraphs 51 and 56 of this ruling, the court unequivocally states that the right to negative voting is essential to democracy, helping in keeping out criminals and other undesirables from electoral competition. The establishment of NOTA is the strongest bulwark against the manifestly undemocratic demand of compulsory voting – since no purpose is achieved by using the law to compel every eligible voter to merely turn up at the polling station.

Way back in 1896, the Supreme Court of Missouri examined the legality of compulsory voting in Kansas City v. Whipple. For those who argue that one must vote or be made to vote to be entitled to full citizenship, the court’s words carry a lesson: for the performance of any duties of citizenship, reliance must be placed only on the enlightened conscience of free citizens.

The United States President Thomas Jefferson once said that a government derives its authority from the consent of the governed. If this consent is to be forced by way of compulsory voting, the government itself loses every shred of legitimacy.