What moral obligations does a voter have?


Viola New

To person

holds a doctorate in political science and is deputy head of the Politics and Consulting Department and of the Empirical Social Research team at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Berlin. [email protected]

The demand for the introduction of compulsory voting in Germany enjoys little public response. From time to time the debate glimmers - the reason is usually a falling voter turnout - but there can be no question of an intense public debate. In the debate about compulsory voting, both supporters and opponents primarily come up with arguments based on a normative understanding of the state and citizenship. Proponents argue primarily on the basis of a democratic duty that the citizen has to perform and a democracy can also demand. In addition, the elected would have greater legitimacy and political equality would be strengthened. In addition, there are a number of supporting arguments that are generally guided by the assumption that high voter turnout is a sign of a "good" democracy.

Opponents also argue on a moral, but mostly libertarian, level. Here, the freedom of choice or, alternatively, freedom from the state is placed in the foreground, which also includes the freedom not to take part in an election, since nobody can be forced to pursue political interests. Equally, skepticism dominates that the quality of democracy would be improved, since voter participation can only be a symptom of a critical or crisis-ridden development and does not already contain the solution to the problem.

From a democratic theoretical point of view, there are basically good arguments for and against compulsory voting. Which does not equally mean that it would stand up to a constitutional review by the Federal Constitutional Court. The freedom of choice also includes the freedom of negative voting decisions: In the case of compulsory voting, this means that you cannot stay away from voting, but only have the option of casting an invalid vote. Forcing citizens to cast (invalid) votes is only justified if it serves a legitimate purpose, such as increasing the acceptance of democracy. From a constitutional point of view, it is at least doubtful whether this can be achieved through compulsory voting.

Good Democracy, Bad Democracy?

Like all democracies, the German one is based on established regulations, mechanisms and procedures. These differ from country to country, and there are no two democracies in the world that are alike. In the German tradition - not least from the experience of two dictatorships with de facto compulsory voting - compulsory voting is a foreign body in the constitutional logic. If there were symptoms of crisis in democracy, these could not be remedied even with compulsory voting, as is evident from the political situation in some countries with compulsory voting. In many democratic countries with compulsory voting, this obligation to vote results from culturally or historically grown traditions, or it is a reaction to a specific development or event. On the one hand, compulsory voting has a very individual reasoning context. In dictatorships or other authoritarian forms of government, on the other hand, compulsory voting serves to pseudo-legitimize those in power.

Regardless of the reason, there is one declared goal for the introduction of compulsory voting in Germany: to increase voter turnout. A high voter turnout is equated with a "good" democracy. It becomes, so to speak, a democratic seal of approval. This would create legitimation, increase the acceptance of democracy and reduce disaffection with politics. In addition, social segregation would be overcome, as socially weak and disadvantaged voters in particular are currently staying away from the polls.

Now, neither in democracy theory nor in empirical democracy research have clearly reliable indicators for the quality of the democratic community been distilled. Whether trust in democratic institutions, elected organs or satisfaction with the political system: any interpretation of approval or rejection of criticism or dissatisfaction is fuzzy, in the worst case arbitrary: Is a democracy satisfaction rate of 66 percent high or low? How much trust do institutions need? How much criticism can democracy take? These questions alone make it clear that there is no objectifiable criterion for the legitimacy of democracy. [2]

The same applies to the discussion about the level of voter turnout. The argument that high voter turnout is a sign of an accepted democracy was impressively refuted as early as the Weimar Republic. Voter turnout rose to over 80 percent after the crisis elections in 1930. In the last more or less free election on March 5, 1933, the proportion of voters was 88.8 percent. In the "golden" 1920s, however, the values ​​were between 75 and 80 percent. Even if both non-voters and party changers had their share in the rise of the NSDAP, in 1933 about "60 percent of the NSDAP immigrants came [from] the non-voter camp". [3] Conversely, the high voter turnout in the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1970s is certainly not a symptom of a crisis in democracy. [4] Just the rise or fall as well as the level of voter turnout say little about democracy, and it is therefore inappropriate to exaggerate it in terms of democratic theory.


Research agrees that compulsory voting without sanctions has rather weak effects. A moral obligation to vote (also in legal form) is seen as unproblematic due to its appellative character. In a number of countries there are sometimes drastic sanctions, but these are usually not applied. These penalties range from fines to the curtailment of civil rights (such as temporary deprivation of the right to vote, exclusion from public office or professional bans in the public sector) to publication of non-voter lists and imprisonment.

In a study, there was only a very low level of acceptance for the introduction of mandatory voting, which has proven to be sanctioned, in Germany. But even without sanctions, the rejection outweighs by far: "Its introduction would therefore probably meet with clear resistance. To what extent the hoped-for positive effects actually occur would be (...) questionable, because the acceptance of mandatory voting among potential non-voters is again significantly lower than among the population as a whole. "[5] So it cannot even be ruled out that the introduction of compulsory voting with sanctions would even reduce the acceptance of democracy in Germany.