When political scientists engage in studies of political phenomena there are many approaches that they may take. One oft-used approach is the so-called most similar systems design. This approach tries to “control for concomitant variation.” What does that mean? In social research it is difficult to clear cause-and-effect relationships because phenomena are complex and multi-faceted. Thus, if we wanted to determine why, for example, Canada is a relatively enduring and stable democracy, and Azerbaijan is not, one potential reason could be the relatively different histories of the two countries–Canada is a former British colony, while Azerbaijan was a former republic in the Soviet Union (which was a communist state).
Could this be the reason? Possibly. But, there are so many other differences between Canada and Azerbaijan that could also be the cause of the divergent outcomes regarding present political regime. Which one of these myriad differences, then, is the true cause of the difference between Canada and Azerbaijan regarding the level of democracy in each? (Indeed, the answer may not be mono-causal, but more complex and multi-causal.)
This is why many comparativists use the most similar systems design. By selecting units (countries) that are as similar as possible, they can control for many other potential causes for the alleged divergence in outcomes across the political phenomenon of interest.
So, let’s look at Canada and Australia–two countries that are quite similar in many respects: former British colonies, large land masses with relatively small populations, multi-cultural, constitutional monarchies, parliamentary democracies, economies reliant on natural resources, neither of which has won FIFA’s World Cup (men or women), etc. The two countries, differ, however, in levels of voting participation. Whereas barely 60% of eligible Canadians vote in federal elections, the corresponding figure for Australia is well over 90%. Do Aussies simply value political participation more than Canadians? Hardly! Australia has a mandatory voting law, which penalizes (monetarily) those who do not vote.
Should Canada enact a mandatory voting law? What do you think? Is it anti-democratic to force citizens to participate in the democratic process?
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