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Should voting in general elections be made mandatory?

File photograph: Malay Mail Online

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The proportional representation system should be introduced and voter registration should be made easier, says Benedict Lopez.

Frequently, we hear about elections where people are concerned about a low voter turnout. In many countries, people see voting as optional, and in most elections, a good number of voters choose to abstain from voting.

The apathy among people in many countries in exercising their constitutional right is indeed alarming. Citizens should be morally obligated to cast their votes in any election, be it a federal level general election or even a local council election.

But what if voting was not a choice, but a duty that was legally binding on everyone? It is not bizarre as it may seem from the outset. In fact, many countries have some form of compulsory voting.

Reinforcing the argument for obligatory voting is that it leads to considerably higher voter turnouts.

Let’s take a look at a country not too far away: Australia, where voting is mandatory. Prior to the implementation of compulsory voting in 1924, the voter turnout rate there had slumped considerably to around 47% of all eligible voters. When voting was made mandatory, the turnout rose to more than 80% of eligible voters.

With the Malaysian general election expected in the next few months, it is important for all Malaysians to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

It is the ethical responsibility for every citizen to vote out of concern for the nation. Any citizen who does not vote, apart from those with good reason, should not complain about problems confronting the country – nor should they participate in any political discourse.

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After nomination day and prior to polling day, voters should prudently scrutinise the credentials of the various candidates and decide who will best serve them as their elected representatives.

Voters should also take into account everything that has transpired in the country since the last general election. Taking all factors into account is important as the X placed on the ballot paper should be considered sacrosanct.

Now and then, I hear people complaining about so many things in the country, but when I ask some of them whether they have voted, they say they are not even registered as voters.

Many eligible voters adopt a lackadaisical attitude, and some even espouse a nonsensical view at times – that their one vote will not make a difference!

A past US President, John Quincy Adams, once said, “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

General elections in all countries should be based on the proportional representation system – only then, will the genuine voices of the people be effectively gauged – and definitely not through simple-majority rule or the first-past-the-post system.

National consensus can only be determined in Parliament under a proportional representation system. Under this system, governments can in no way be implicated in gerrymandering of parliamentary constituencies.

My personal view is that the Election Act should be amended to make voting in a general election a compulsory requirement for all citizens. And the government will have to ensure that citizens living overseas, especially those residing far away from Malaysian embassies, get the opportunity to vote in a general election.

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Domestically, the government should ensure that all necessary arrangements should be made for those living and working far away from their parliamentary constituencies to be able to vote.

The opportunity to vote should also be made for citizens in hospitals, retirement homes and those confined to their homes. Voting for these citizens can be a few days before polling day.

The government should come up with a new mechanism to attract new voters as the present process of registration is cumbersome for many citizens.

To facilitate registration, citizens should be allowed to sign up at more convenient locations like post offices, city halls, district offices, selected government agencies and public locations like shopping malls.

The Electoral Commission should also send its personnel in vans to residential areas, offices, universities, colleges and other strategic locations as a measure to facilitate voter registration. Registration of voters should be an ongoing exercise carried out throughout the year.

Many of the younger generation these days are IT-savvy, and therefore the Electoral Commission should allow online registration. In the US, online registration is allowed in 31 states and the District of Columbia. With the advent of information and communications technology, a citizen should be allowed to vote even one day after registration.

Thanks for dropping by! The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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