'None of the above': how to improve compulsory voting requirements

Compulsory voting boosts turnout but also has potentially negative consequences, such as increasing invalid voting. Furthermore, it gives voters few opportunities to express discontent or disinterest. Shane P. Singh, Carolina Plescia and Sylvia Kritzinger argue that we could solve this by introducing a 'none of the above' (NOTA) option

Compulsory voting in the European Parliament elections

In June 2024, EU citizens head to the polls to elect the new European Parliament (EP). In four of the 27 member states — Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, and Luxembourg — voting is required by law. This will be the second EP election in which Cypriots do not have to take part; Cyprus abolished compulsory voting shortly before the 2019 contest. In Belgium, for the first time, it is mandatory for juveniles to vote. A recent court ruling extended the voting mandate to 16- and 17-year-olds, who are newly enfranchised for EP elections.

Benefits of compulsory voting for turnout

Worldwide, about 25 countries make voting obligatory. In many of these countries, people who fail to turn out incur a punishment. Recent research finds that unenforced compulsory voting increases turnout by 7.5 to 10 percentage points. Enforced compulsory voting, on the other hand, does so by 14.5 to 18.5 percentage points. It is probably no coincidence that Belgium and Luxembourg have the top two turnout rates in every EP election ever held.

Recent research finds that enforced compulsory voting increases turnout by 14.5 to 18.5 percentage points

Compulsory voting is an easy way to boost turnout, making it an attractive method for countries concerned about lacklustre participation in EP elections. And there is reason for such concern: turnout dropped in every EP vote from 1979 to 2014, before rebounding to a still-low 51% in 2019. Sustained debates over compulsory voting have played out in recent years in several EU countries, France in particular. As the 2019 EP election approached, Jean-Claude Juncker, then president of the European Commission, suggested that member states mandate turnout.

Downsides of compulsory voting

Advocates of compulsory voting should be aware of its downstream consequences. A burgeoning literature finds that compulsory voting can help equalise turnout rates among socioeconomic groups. However, it can also bring to the polls those least interested in politics, who are more likely to cast a vote with little contemplation. Researchers have found that compelled voters are more likely to vote randomly or contrary to their stated political preferences. They are also more likely to lodge an invalid ballot.

Compulsory voting can help equalise turnout rates among socioeconomic groups

One study found that compulsory voting has the most robust effect on invalid voting among nine possible predictors. Another study found that people who distrust or dislike democratic governance are driving the increase in invalid balloting. These are the very people who tend to prefer to stay home on election day.

Introducing a 'none of the above' option

All this suggests that countries implementing compulsory voting in EP elections would benefit from adding a 'none of the above' option to ballot papers. This is precisely what Bulgaria did in in 2016 following its adoption of compulsory voting.

A NOTA option provides a formal avenue for registering discontent for those who might otherwise invalidate their ballot. In recent research, we found that those who distrust political institutions, lack political knowledge, and are uninterested in politics, are most attracted to a NOTA option. If forced to vote, these types of individuals might cast an invalid ballot. Instead, they would likely lodge a valid NOTA vote, if given the option.

A 'none of the above' option provides a formal avenue for registering discontent for those who might otherwise invalidate their ballot

Moreover, research shows that compulsory voting can sour attitudes toward the democratic system even further among those who prefer not to vote. It is therefore especially important to institute this 'escape valve' when compelling turnout in EP elections.

A NOTA option would allow voters to send the EU a signal of discontent or protest, while still participating. For EU policymakers and national governments, a strong share of the vote for NOTA would serve as a useful barometer on public disinterest and/or discontent.

A law introducing NOTA could even include a provision to rerun the election if NOTA defeated all competing parties or reached a certain threshold. This is the case in Colombia, for example.

If citizens are legally required to take part in the electoral process, we might see some motivation from politicians to give voters a good reason to choose them over NOTA.

Coupling 'none of the above' to juvenile voting

For many of the same reasons that a NOTA option is a good accompaniment to mandatory voting, it should also be coupled with juvenile voting. Like many compelled voters, younger citizens would benefit from a formal avenue for registering distrust and disaffection. This would apply even to those who have turned out voluntarily,

Young people in Belgium are newly enfranchised. Given current discussions on lowering the voting age to 16 in many other European countries, electoral reformers may also consider adding a NOTA option to ballot papers, starting with the EP elections.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Shane P. Singh Shane P. Singh Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, University of Georgia More by this author
photograph of Carolina Plescia Carolina Plescia Assistant Professor, Department of Government, University of Vienna More by this author
photograph of Sylvia Kritzinger Sylvia Kritzinger Professor of Methods in the Social Sciences, University of Vienna More by this author

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