Is voting in Brazil mandatory?
Vote is a duty for Brazilians aged 18-70, and it's optional for people aged 16-18 and over 70.
Would it be better to do as in the older Democracies and turn voting on elections an option for everyone?
What happens if somebody doesn't show up to vote?
Citizens who don't vote have several ways to regularize their status.
The most common way is just to go to any Post Office on the very day of election and fill an specific form stating that you are out of your electoral zone; someone is supposed to check out the IDs of the poster; the form and its posting cost about US$2; there's no need to explain why you are not at your voting district; just post the absence form, and you are as good as if you had actually voted.
Add this lenient legislation to the fact that election days are holidays, and it will be easy to understand why many people of middle class usually prefer to take a short trip rather than voting.
If someone can't go to a post office (or even just doesn't bother to), then they have a 60 days time to go to an electoral court and present his justifications of the absence.
If they miss that 60 day deadline, then they must go before an electoral judge and pay a fine. The fine depends on a few factors (the most important being the recurrence on infractions), but never more than a couple dollars.
At last, if the citizen really doesn't care about anything of the above, then he will probably be benefited by an amnesty law which is passed every few years (usually right before the major presidential elections).
CONCLUSION: for those who do not want to vote, voting is not really a duty. Changing the law wouldn't really make a difference for them.
Would there be any disadvantage in making the vote optional for all?
I think so.
For the poor people, those few dollars to be paid to justify absence is plenty of money. So, even if for purely financial reasons, those people do want to vote.
If voting was not a duty, there would be several ways to prevent the poorer from voting. The way it is today, that big mass of poor citizens walk whatever distance it takes, wait however long long in lines, face all the noisy canvassers who try to get their votes, all to save them from the penalties associated with absence. Now, if they know they have to go to the voting cabin, it is possible that some (hopefully many) of them will take some time to think about who are the best candidates.
What could happen if voting was not a duty? Imagine the mayor in office from a small country side town "recommends" the citizens not to vote; would the poor face the powerful? Today, yes, but if they knew that there was nothing wrong with absence, they would probably not.
CONCLUSION: making voting a duty is the best way to make it a right. By "obliging" people to vote, you give them support to exercize their rights to vote.
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