Compulsory Voting: Right or Responsibility

Every time American elections come around, I see hundreds of people on Twitter in photos with stickers and banners reading: ‘I VOTED.’ I have always found this funny.  In Brazil, where I have lived for my entire life, I’ve never seen a single person with such a sticker, but in America, the act of simply voting is enough to warrant admiration. The reason for this is quite simple: voting is mandatory in Brazil, with Brazilians who opt not to vote forced to pay a fine. Meanwhile, in the United States, voting is completely optional. This makes Brazil have higher electoral turnouts—79.67 % to the United States’s 66.8 % in each country’s most recent presidential election. In theory, higher electoral turnouts mean more political legitimacy, populational interest, and a more accurate reflection of the population’s wants and needs. However, in practice, mandatory voting in Brazil leads to both random and uninformed voting, especially because of popularity bias that comes from media coverage. 

Random voting to avoid the penalty is common behavior in Brazil. Sample studies done to determine the extent of random voting in Brazil are normally indirect, as people generally don’t proudly expose that they vote randomly. Yet, in a paper by Alessandro Freire and Mathieu Turgeon, a %age of subjects confessed to voting randomly: 13.4 % for state representatives, 12.2 % for federal representatives, 9.6 % for governors, and 8.2 % for presidents. In my personal experience, many people—including people I know— vote randomly, especially in elections for federal representatives. Brazilians who are reluctant to research or improperly understand Brazil’s political landscape before voting detract from the quality of the election results, and mandatory voting exacerbates the issue. 

I believe uninformed voting can also be considered a form of random voting, as neither uses informed reflection upon political principles to select the best candidate. Uninformed voting can be measured through political involvement and interest. This is shown in a research paper by Dr. Nuno Mesquita, in which participants were asked if they participated in city/neighborhood associations or attended either social movements meetings. Only 0.9 % of subjects answered ‘very frequently’, with an astounding 77.6 % and 81.6 % answering ‘never.’ Dr. Mesquita’s paper’s central focus was how interested people are in politics. He highlighted that 32.5 % of respondents were ‘not interested at all.’ Freire and Turgeon’s paper highlighted how political interest saw the most correlation to random voting when compared to participation, stating that an uninterested voter is more likely to vote randomly. This political disinterest and subsequent random vote lead to Brazil’s political landscape with a dearth of qualified candidates. There are not many politicians who are fit to be president. Even in the two most recent elections, Dilma Rousseff was involved in corruption scandals, and Jair Bolsonaro handled the Covid-19 pandemic terribly; Brazil was the country with the second largest number of deaths. However, both received extensive media attention and were popular despite being unfit to govern. If the population truly did care for whom they voted, then politicians would not only be held to a higher degree of responsibility, but also better politicians would hold these important positions.

Even worse, media in Brazil is plagued by biases and misinformation. This mostly boils down to the monopoly that TV Globo holds on the industry. TV Globo shapes and manipulates the public’s opinion. During the Brazilian military regime and the Dilma Rousseff administration, TV Globo supported the government, which led to the population supporting these administrations for far longer than they should have. Horrifyingly, most Brazilians consume only Globo. In fact, 77 % of people said they watch news on TV every day, in Dr. Mesquita’s research, and watching news is almost definitely watching TV Globo given its popularity. Compare this to the mere 11 % of Brazilians who listen to or read news on the internet every day, a more reliable way to consume news because the wider variety of sources allows people to draw conclusions for themselves. During the 2018 presidential elections, media attention again heavily impacted Brazilian voters. In a poll conducted by Ibope, an independent social research organization, in September, Bolsonaro held 22 % of the popular vote. On September 6, Bolsonaro was stabbed while campaigning. After the identity of the stabber was revealed to be a member of a left-wing party and the case received extensive media coverage, Bolsonaro’s %age of supporters rose to 36 % in the Ibope poll a month later. This shows how a media narrative can dramatically influence opinions of candidates regardless of their stances on political issues if the population does not rely upon a variety of trustworthy news sources to gain a holistic perspective.

Compulsory voting creates an atmosphere where political disinterest and media bias can lead to random voting or voting without sufficient research to make informed choices. Mandatory voting needs to end now to disincentivize random voting. But in the long run, the people also need to participate more in politics and draw information from a wider variety of sources; people ought to want to vote in order to have their voices heard. We need people who will inform themselves to select a leader who will strengthen democratic ideals and encourage everyone to engage with their country’s political issues.