Compulsory vs Voluntary Voting

The Parliamentary Library has released a research brief on compulsory voting. Australia has been using compulsory voting since 1924, when it was introduced as a private members bill after some parliamentarians were shocked at the lack of turnout to an election. Compulsory voting is a bit of a misnomer though, it is more accurately compulsory attendance at an electoral booth on election day. Due to the amazing Australian innovation of the secret ballot, informal votes are impossible to punish. Informal voting tends to make up about five percent of the voting population. Despite there being Compulsory Voting, turnout is never one hundred percent anyway, the Northern Territory just gets over the ninety percent hump.
Floating Electoral Change

After the 2004 election, and with a Liberal Senate majority, there began to be mention of electoral changes. Senator Nick Minchin;

Well, that the Government will decide to take to the people a policy of having voluntary voting in this country, and that if we win the next election that we would then seek to remove compulsion from the Australian Electoral Act.

Minchin claimed Howard approves of voluntary voting, but Minchin is an old voluntary voting warrior, calling compulsory voting, "the blight of compulsion". He also tried to get legislation through South Australian parliament on voluntary voting in 1994, which was unsuccessful, being blocked by Labor and Democrats in the Legislative Council. South Australia had a longer history of voluntary voting than the rest of Australia, not adopting compulsory voting in the Legislative Council until 1985. Minchin may remember fondly that time prior, which also included a horribly malapportioned and warped South Australian Legislative Council.

I am immediately suspicious of politicians changing the electoral system, as I can only think of one altruistic act in this area, in the entire history of Australian politics. That was Steele Hall, who removed malapportionment in South Australia, despite the knowledge that it would cost him his government.

The best example of electoral change to try and maintain incumbency was Labor changing the Senate system from First Past the Post [FPTP] to proportional representation. This was done because Chifley believed that Labor would lose the Senate in an upcoming election under a FPTP system. This back-fired on Labor, they have not had a majority in the Senate since. However, there have been unexpected benefits, namely with the rise of the Australian Democrats in the late 1970s who helped the Senate become a genuine house of review, until their dismal showing in 2004.

Compulsory Voting

In Australia this was first introduced in Queensland in 1918. An interesting effect of this was that people in Queensland got used to voting, and their turn-out in voluntary federal elections increased above the national average. At the federal level, voluntary voting had produced between 78% and 55%, and Senator Herbert Payne introduced a private members bill which quickly passed both houses. After this other states quickly followed, Victoria in 1926, NSW and Tasmania in 1928 and Western Australia in 1936. South Australia added compulsory voting for its House of Assembly in 1942.

Source: Compulsory voting in Australian national elections - Parliamentary Library Research Brief

Australia is not alone in using voluntary voting, numerous European, South American, Central American nations do as well. In our region, Singapore, Thailand, Fiji and Nauru use compulsory voting. There are differences in how compulsory voting is enforced, in Australia there is strong enforcement, though the fine for not voting is $20 AUD. Peru will not honour some social services, unless the citizen has a stamped voter card. Greeks can face difficulty getting a passport or drivers license unless they have voted. However, in nations such as Costa Rica and Thailand, there is no enforcement of compulsory voting.

The Cons of Compulsory Voting

The research paper lists the pros and cons, that commonly circulate in the argument over compulsory vs voluntary voting. The Cons;

  • It is not democratic to force people to cast their vote.

  • It causes over-government.

  • It represents a failure of democracy.

  • Most voting people do is voluntary, why should national and state elections be the exception?

  • It is unfair to a voter who is not attracted to a candidate.

  • It rewards dishonest electors who turn up and vote informal to get their names marked off the roll.

  • Compulsory voting has made life easier for the parties.

  • Parties don't need mass memberships as people vote for/against them anyway. Less need to convince the electorate of their policies.

  • It trivialises campaigns, making them more celebrity run-offs than policy campaigns.

  • Parties ignore safe electorates.

  • It allows the idiots to vote.

  • People resent being dragged to the voting booth.

  • Donkey voting is an outcome of making people vote who don't want to.

  • Quality of MP representation would be closer to their electorate as they would have to be more sensitive locally to ensure re-election.

  • Australia is "out of step with the world" by requiring citizens to vote.

The Parliamentary Library is to be congratulated in compiling such a complete resource of con arguments, however many fall under the category, which in internet slang, is known as "LOL What?". Most of the issues can be solved through de-criminalising informal voting, not that it can be policed anyway. The problem with donkey voting, and party-line voting has been largely solved in Tasmania by the Robson Rotation and no by-elections.

Parties will always be a problem, as they are a special interest group who often works against the common good to enact their ideology through the coercion of state. The media has enabled parties to get away with celebrity driven elections that are devoid of policy and are defined by a singular wedge issue. Oppositions all run on small-target campaigns.

I find the objection that is allows idiots to vote the most repugnant. Their is more wisdom in the people than in government, and it is a natural right for an individual, who has agreed to consent to the laws and taxation of a government, to have a say in its running and make-up.

The Pros of Compulsory Voting

The paper mentions that many of the pros take a view of it giving benefits to Australian society. Some of the advantages of compulsory voting;

  • Voting is another obligation that the state has a right to expect from citizens (like taxes, juries and sending children to school)

  • critics are not opposed to compulsory enrolment, compulsory allocation of preferences yet are opposed to compulsory attendance at an electoral booth.

  • Compulsory voting increases turnout, voluntary voting decreases turnout.

  • Higher sample of public opinion with higher turnout.

  • Legitimacy of government is more accepted by a high turnout.

  • Compulsory enrolment requires compulsory voting

  • Equalises participation and removes bias from less-privileged citizens

  • Increases citizen interest in politics and government

  • Forces the silent majority to think about elections which safeguards from extremism.

  • Voluntary voting makes election more expensive as parties have to spend money on "getting out the vote".

  • High turnout produces a reduction in the incentive for negative advertising.

  • There is familiarity with the system, Australia has a high public turnout for it.

  • It has become the Australian Way.

  • It is an integral part of Australian political culture.

Many of these are pretty weak, and are sentimental and conservative in argument. For instance the "we are used to it" argument is a conservative one as is the "Australian Way" argument. I don't believe those are valid. The legitimacy argument is the best one in my opinion.

Bugger The Politicians

I have no problem with compulsory voting and see it as preferable to voluntary voting. However, there are several areas I would like to see improved in the electoral system rather than the ones put forward by Eric Abetz and Nick Minchin. These are the electoral changes that I see as necessary to ensure the individuals political rights, and to protect democracy from parties, incumbency and corruption;

  • Fixed term elections every three years. This would remove the incumbent calling the election date. This still leaves a hole for double-dissolution elections, but hopefully they will become politically on the nose.

  • Term limiting the head of the Executive Cabinet. Six years is enough, after that time to hand over to a successor.

  • Universal suffrage. No kicking the Australian Diaspora off the rolls after three years. No stopping those incarcerated from voting, they remain citizens despite their crimes against society. Any individual above the age of reason should be able to vote. It can be compulsory for citizens, and voluntary for non-citizens, leaving them with an option to choose by their conscience if they want to join the citizenry in picking their government.

The ideas that Eric Abetz and Frank Minchin floated after the 2004 elections are more motivated by the perception of party advantage through rigging the electoral system than by any altruistic view of democratic process. As the Research Paper noted, for parties, electoral reform tends to be personal. Too personal for my liking.

cam 2005-11-20 06:17:26.0