The Gujarat government have recently passed a legislation making voting in local government elections compulsory. If the voter fails to vote for the reasons other than prescribed in the rules, he may be declared a "defaulter voter" and would face consequences for which rules will be framed and approved in due course.
Mandatory voting is sure to raise opposition among liberals who reject it as being against the fundamental values of democracy itself. Further, on the implementation side, there are far too many imponderables that can come in the way of enforcement of any rules that seek to punish "defaulter voters". Further, apart from increasing awareness, there may be other effective means of mobilizing voter turnout, especially in low turnout urban areas, like "nudging" people to vote.
In this context, research into randomized experiments to increase voter turnout conducted during the 2006 US mid-term elections and 2005 German federal elections by Daniel G. Goldstein, Kosuke Imai, Anja S. Göritz, and Peter M. Gollwitzer carry great relevance. They conducted two experiments - a mere measurement treatment (asking people if they intend to vote, thus causing them to reflect on their intentions) and an implementation intentions treatment (asking people how they intend to cast their vote, thus making them plan) - and examined the outcomes for both one-shot goals (e.g., voting on Election Day) and open-ended goals (e.g., voting early or by post) with deadlines in either days or months in the future.
They found that "mere measurement increased voter turnout for open-ended goals and for proximal one-shot goals but not for distant one-shot goals. Implementation intentions increased voter turnout for both open-ended and one-shot goals in the near and long term." Therefore, when elections are just around the corner, or when open-ended early-voting options exist, the mere measurement treatment can nudge people to vote in larger numbers.
The Nudges blog points to voter mobilization techniques involving randomly sending letters, airing radio and print advertisements, phoning homes, or sending canvassers door-to-door making personal pitches, all of which seek to "nudge" voters into actually casting their votes. It was found that mobilization techniques involving direct contact (as opposed to the impersonal channels of phones, e-mails and advertisements), like sending volunteers to remind voters about the vote next day, is effective in significantly increasing voter turnout. In fact, research by Betsy Sinclair et al based on experiments conducted in 2006 Californian elections, have found that voter turnout increases more (by more than 9 percentage points) if you send a neighbor instead of a stranger to someone’s house.
Instead of taking the extreme step of making voting legally compulsory, governments interested in addressing the voter turnout issue may be better off "nudging" than "legislating" voters to cast their votes. During the last elections in India some of these were tried out, though they were of the impersonal mass outreach variant. In fact, such techniques are more likely to be effective in local government elections. Residential Welfare Associations (RWAs) and other local volunteers may be mobilized to remind voters about their voting responsibility, say two days before the voting, so as to avoid infringing with the restrictions on campaigning that come into effect 48 hours before close of polling.
Techniques that use the "mere measurement treatment" would also avoid controversies over covert campaigning (using this nudge experiment to campaign) and can be tried out in urban areas, which have the lowest voter turnout and where subversion of these campaigns are least likely. Further, people in these areas are more likely to respond to these signals given the higher level of "peer pressure effect" within communities. So maybe, it is time that NGOs and public interest organization take a leaf out of the aforementioned studies and recruit community volunteers to "nudge" people into voting, and thereby prevent the need to have such compulsory voting legislations.
Update 1 (3/11/2010)
Excellent summary of the nudge techniques being adopted by political parties in the US to get people to turnout for voting. A study by Yale professors Alan Gerber and Donald Green during the 1998 elections split 30,000 New Haven voters into four groups - some received an oversize postcard encouraging them to vote, others the same message via a phone call or in-person visit, and the control group received no contact whatsoever. The in-person canvass yielded turnout 9.8 percent higher than for voters who were not contacted. Each piece of mail led to a turnout increase of only 0.6 percent. Telephone calls, Gerber and Green concluded, had no effect at all.