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Compulsory Voting and its Antipodean ills

Time and time again, we are told that making people vote improves representation and representativeness. Herding them on pain of penalty will somehow keep politics honest, and ensure that those in Parliament, or whatever chamber it may be, will be kept accountable. Imagine how awful it is to have a President voted in on a mere third of the vote, or political representatives who only ever speak on behalf of a small portion of their electorate?

The argument is only superficially appealing. A look at the ABC’s Four Corners episodes, featuring picked electors by the national broadcaster, did little to instil confidence in compulsory voting, which has been the mainstay in Australia since 1924. From that year on, electoral legislation has stipulated that “it shall be the duty of every elector” to vote “at each election”.

What was dismal in the exercise by the national broadcaster was the happily conceded ignorance of the punters, who, with the exception of one “voter”, seemed to have gone for the whole political spread in their electing history. In other words, they were swingers, fidelity adjustable. This ignored the fundamental point that Australians remain, even now, hostile to eclectic coalitions and representatives unaligned to the major political parties. On the issue of whether the Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese would be a suitable leader, let alone prime minister, no illumination was offered, only a blanket of ignorant darkness, occasionally rented by observations that “he might be a decent bloke” who hated Tories and loved his beer.

The major parties still command automatic blocs of votes: the Labor voter who could never imagine voting for the party of the corporate boss; the Liberal, business minded voter, who cannot possibly conceive of an alternative that might mean more taxes or a raid on the family trust. This state of affairs has produced a particularly mercenary approach in politics, with political apparatchiks ignoring campaigning in safe seats while obsessing over the swinging “marginals”. Don Aitkin, rather accurately, has also observed that Australian political parties have had little need for mass membership in such a system. Parties, he remarks, “have become career structures for the politically active.”

The history of compulsory voting in Australia is fascinating. Those protecting it do so with a suicide-bomber’s fanaticism. Many who have questioned the system invite apostasy and ostracising. After the 2004 federal election, there were some murmurings of disagreement from some members of the Liberal Party, unsurprising given the historic advantage left-wing parties have had over conservatives in the process.

This sentiment, however, went nowhere. The approach is rusted down, and opinion polls on Australian attitudes to compulsory voting have persistently shown that “never less than six out of every 10 voters [support] compulsory voting.”

The arguments for maintaining the status quo include, for instance, a chance to snuff out potential extremists. They are neutralised by the sheer bulk of the beige middle ground. The problem with that line of thinking is evident. Such a process also discourages the voting in of independent voices unattached to worn, factional party machines.

For its modest merits, no compulsory voting system creates a more enlightened voter. In Australia, the ritual is a well-rehearsed one on polling day. Often held on the weekend so as not to be a disruption to work. Sausage-sizzles. How to vote cards handed out by volunteers. Party paraphernalia just outside the polling booths. Many trees felled in the enterprise.

None of this guarantees a more educated, informed choice. Dismally, individuals who turn 18 can be asked whether they even know the bicameral nature of the Australian Commonwealth, only to be greeted by blank stares. How puzzled are those looks when they are asked to fill out the boxes of the Senate candidates at the polling booth, which has historically had ballot papers so long they would provide gift wrapping for many an occasion. To date, the teaching in schools to rectify this problem has shown no evidence of correcting this. But then again, the teachers may themselves be ignorant of it.

Certain authorities on the nature of electoral choice, such as Keith Jakee and Guang-Zhen Sun, argue that compulsion for those who are not interested in the first place in the process can lead to an increase in the proportion of random votes. Less popular candidates, ironically enough, can find themselves being elected.

There have been some clever arguments framed against the compulsory voting model, notably within the peculiarities of the Australian political system. Unfortunately, these have not made much headway except in the dry and narrow channels of academe and the occasional policy paper.

One is that such a system infringes the implied freedom of political communication recognised by the Australian High Court since 1992. Another goes back to the basic understanding of a right to vote, one recognised by the same judicial body as inherent in the Constitution. A right to vote entails the freedom not to vote. In making Australians vote, the right becomes an obligation or, as the propagandists for this cause claim, a duty.

There are some things that would not be addressed if voting was made voluntary. The Australian voter has had an enormous capacity to tolerate illegal wars, incursions into foreign territories without parliamentary approval, the torture, degrading and permanent detention of refugees, and pandemic policies tinged with a policing frown. Big picture issues, at least since the 1990s, have been treated with withering suspicion.

Voters will remain purchasers and customers, the political parties hawking products and opportunities to entice self-interested choices. Talk will continue to remain about interest rates, the crushing mortgage, the housing market, and finance. Climate change chatter has finally made it into the pubs and public halls, but this has been a painfully slow thing in a country where digging the earth and exporting readymade resources is a dandy thing to do. We can only hope, come the next federal election, that voters resolve to make their elected officials work. And there is no greater incentive than a hung parliament in achieving that aim.


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  1. Ai Khan Singh

    I actually support the idea of compulsory voting. Even though a minority – even a sizeable one – doesn’t have an interest, making them vote makes them decide. We cannot complain about any government elected in Australia because the winning party/coalition gets the majority of the vote. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable seeing the kind of people we elect (Wake In Fright is alive and well) but I accept that it is the will of the people, albeit nudged along by arseholes like the wrinkled Yank and his handpicked haemorrhoids…

  2. Leon Hassall

    I support the compulsory voting agenda, it has worked far better than America and has shown people get what they want wether good or bad. Non compulsory voting is open to far more corruption as shown in America ….again as Trump has tried to prove and in many other countries that have use it as a way to add votes to the system. Compulsory voting means if you don’t vote you don’t vote simple. In non compulsory voting countries they steal identities and vote using them. Don’t attack compulsory voting unless you want to currupt a system.

  3. Phil Pryor

    Not quite so, Ai Khan. You say “We cannot complain.., winning party.., majority of vote. One can get a group vote of fifty % plus one more, in fifty % of electorates, plus one more, and thus win with as little as 26% of the vote. BJelke-Petersen nearly did so, as rural electorates are rigged and reduced. Playford did it in Sth Aust, long ago. It is a variation of the gerrymander concept. Some government have been elected in my time with 48 or 49% , as the losers “wasted” large votes in safe seats. In my college days, we learned that only two nations had compulsory voting, Australia and (hah) Afghanistan.(male only). Clearly, if it is compulsory to obey law and pay tax, it must be so for voting, a citizen’s primary duty.

  4. New England Cocky

    All this whingeing about ”Compulsory Voting” fade into irrelevance when we look at the ”wonderful benefits” of ”first past the post voting” in England and the USA (United States of Apartheid).

    In England FPP voting recently produced Tony Blah & the Words of Mass Deception US imperialist wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, David Cameron & the Brexit Referendum Promise, Boris Johnson & the Brexit Exit all destroying the future for working class citizens.

    In America … well would you vote for Trump purveyor of self-serving abuse of POTUS, Shrubya Bush instigator of the War against Iraq to give control of Iraq oil reserves to American oil interests, or even Daddy Bush of Desertstorm 1 infamy.

    The Australian Compulsory Voting System is not perfect by any means. However, it is the best system that has been devised to date for citizens in a democratic country.

  5. Michael Taylor

    I want it kept compulsory but I do acknowledge that our system has major flaws if someone can receive a whole 17 first-preference votes and still get elected. (I can’t remember who. Might have been Fraser Anning or Malcolm Roberts).

  6. leefe

    While I do agree with some of the points made, there is one major blunder here: voting is not compulsory. You are supposed to register, but there is no mechanism to ensure registration. When registered, you have to either attend a polling station, submit a postal vote, or supply a reason to the AEC, when asked, for not doing so.

    If attending a polling station in person, once given the paper(s) you go into a booth and can write whatever you want on them, including absolutely nothing. Ditto with postal votes. As for explaining why you did not use either of those two options – the AEC send you a post-paid envelope for your reply, and something as simple as “I came down with the dreaded lurgy on the day and was too sick to go out” will suffice.

    This is something – along with the actual mode of operation of our state and federal misgovernments – that should be properly taught to all.

    I have spent a period of at least a decade unregistered (my gypsy years; it is – or it was then – impossible to register when you have “no fixed abode”.) I missed the last state election by being out bush at the time and having my return delayed by bad weather, which the AEC accepted as a valid explanation.

    I have always held that compulsory voting (even though it doesn’t exist here) is largely meaningless without compulsory political and economic literacy, which is not something that can be enforced. So we’re stuck with what I have come to accept is, in fact, the best of a bad set of choices.

    The biggest reform I would like is Proportional Representation, which would make our parliaments a far more accurate representation of the true wishes of the population.

  7. Kaye Lee

    Making voting non-compulsory won’t fix any of the problems you have identified plus it tends to favour conservatives. Imagine giving Martyn Iles free reign to rally the Christians to turn out while the rest of us enjoy a day at the beach. It is also more likely to entrench the two majors than to open the door to newcomers.

    I agree the system needs overhaul but I strongly disagree that you have made any convincing argument in favour of optional voting.

    PS Phil, your teachers were fibbing to you.

  8. Henry Rodrigues

    leefe. You put the point for compulsory voting very well but with the proviso that the voters are well informed of the parties’ manifestos, their candidates. As it stands, donkey votes, non attendance, deliberate messing of the ballot paper, is negating the whole concept of voting. I would support a proportional system, where the representation in parliament reflects the division of the voters intentions. The Greens and the Nats are the perfect example of how distorted the present system is. When creeps like Fraser Anning and Malcolm Robert can sit the parliament for 6 years take home .$200,000 pa. by merely manipulating the system, it’s time to call it out.

  9. Phil Pryor

    Quoite roight, Kaye, it must of bean a joak, done with a strait farce. (just testing…)

  10. Alpo

    Compulsory voting has saved Australian democracy from plunging into an even more disastrous decay. What? Don’t tell me that you think that the situation “can’t be worse than what it is”?… YES IT CAN!

    At the very least, compulsory voting compels a very large number of people to think a bit about their voting decision. Some may still decide not to vote (and pay a fine), or to draw a smiley on their ballot paper (and make their vote invalid), but very many will vote. That vote is not guaranteed to be intelligent and well thought-of, but at least there is a chance that it could be. The more De-Moronised the voters are, the more of them cast their vote, the better a Democracy tends to be.

    When voting is not compulsory, a very large percentage of voters tends to stay at home regularly (“Why bother, nothing ever changes for me”). This usually means that a marginal majority, but occasionally even a minority, of strongly committed voters will decide the fate of everybody… Often, those decided voters tend to lean more to the right, because they have very specific business/financial interests to defend and expect that a right-wing government will support those interests, hence they never miss a vote.

    What s..t of a “democracy” is that?

  11. Alpo

    “Henry Rodrigues February 15, 2022 at 5:18 pm”…

    Your point in favour of proportional representation for the H. of Reps. is a valid one, although it has nothing to do with compulsory voting.

  12. corvusboreus

    Clarifying a couple of oft-confused but technically specific voting terms:

    *Informal vote = submitting an invalid ballot (eg leaving the sheet blank, colouring in the squares with crayons, drawing a dirty doodle).
    Option generally chosen by around 3-5% of overall electorate.

    *Donkey vote = Technically-valid vote made by marking ballot with numerically-correct sequencing (starting with [1] in the top-left spot), submitted as a dutiful expression of civic obligation rather than a genuinely informed democratic choice.
    Option generally chosen by 1-2% of overall electorate.

  13. GYSBERT Cornelis

    An interesting discussion on Radio National last week.
    People who are disengaged politically still vote, and somehow make a decision on who they would prefer as their candidate.
    So it can be argued that compulsory voting produces a more democratic result than where voting is optional.

    When we consider how Australians accept election results, the trust in the system, through in part the almost universal participation and that the elections are run by a politically independent authority, we do not see the disputation we see in other parts of the world.

  14. Harry Lime

    Why do conservative governments overwhelmingly pile educational funding onto private /religious/elite schools at the expense of public schools?
    Investing in a future voting bloc.If we had proportional representation AND compulsory voting,and equitable education funding ,we would never have had the fuckwits like Howard, Abbott and Morriscum.Yes, Labor do it too…because Catholics.Religion…it’s bullshit and a dead weight.Must rush off to confession now.There is another reason..endemic apathy.And a shitful media,full of bias, disinformation and the determination of vested other words,bread and circuses for the great unwashed,all the spoils for the manipulators.Good evening, and good luck.

  15. L.S. Roberts

    There should be a little square on the bottom of the voting paper that says:-
    None of the above.
    There could be a fast lane at polling booths for citizens choosing to vote in this manner.

    We will move to computerised voting sooner rather than later which could allow some latitude.

    Compulsory voting keeps us together and halts the American dilemma of a 40% turnout.

  16. Andrew J. Smith

    I do not think the issue is compulsory voting but more one of how media like 4Corners (ditto Q&A etc.) curate or find an audience that is supposedly representative? One recalls a Mr. Steve ‘great replacement’ Bannon being platformed uncritically by 4Corners, not a great track record?*

    Compulsory voting is essential with skewed electoral demographics due to an ageing electorate committed to voting for their interests which is gamed by the LNP and legacy media especially, but the interests of working age and especially youth are ignored and thrown under a bus for a ‘gerontocracy’?

    This is apparent when looking at, not the preferred and suboptimal ABD UNPD derived NOM ‘immigration’ wall, but long term trends that the OECD presents, and the issue is stark, working age and youth are being outnumbered by oldies voting for LNP policies….. (Think the OECD parses out shorter term ‘noise’ or NOM temporary churn over; if not we are in an even worse situation on skewed electoral etc. demographics, dependency ratios, budgets etc.).

    One observes this in many nations, with non-compulsory voting, with authoritarian leader using ‘collective narcissism’ and ‘pensioner populism’ to pass unpalatable radical right libertarian inspired laws which impact working age and youth most….. e.g. Brexit was partly blamed on bad weather and younger voters not being mobilised.

    *BBC’s Question Time, apparently the inspiration of Q&A, was found out the other year for having an ‘audience producer’ (?!) who collaborated with the hard nationalist right to have them as guests to present their predictable views on ‘immigrants’ etc. and influence audiences lacking skills of critical literacy.

    Conclusion was probably not but definitely a right wing Tory which may have clouded their judgement on audience mix.

  17. wam

    The compulsory system gives us a consistently greater number of participants than many other countries. There is no doubt the ability to pre-vote is also an advantage. Indeed we always pre-vote and avoid running the gauntlet of card thrusters. Leaving us free to go bush out of phone, radio and tv range arriving home when it is safely settled. In my first exhaustive preferential election for my darling, as scrutineer, I saw the power of the donkey vote and unthinking whinging of the media. The leading candidate was first on the ballot but the first two elected were in alphabetical order as the donkey vote went from the first candidate down the preference line with my darling in the last count. She was elected without the donkey because it was a straight preference contest. My suggestion that the ballot papers should not be alphabetical but be rotated to give every candidate access to the donkey. That would have the added advantage of making how to vote cards redundant. The suggestion was rejected by those who felt costly how to vote cards were to their advantage, with one idiot missing the point by suggesting a ballot for 1st place.
    ps michael,
    we elect 6 senators but we have but a single 1st preference. So the number of 1st preferences is irrelevant to the election of senators. The liberal senator david van got 0.04% first preferences but was elected as the 3rd liberal:

  18. Fred

    By having compulsory voting you might avoid results like Brexit, but the biggest problem is the lack of voter engagement. We have an informal vote rate of around 5 to 6% but with a forced high turn out rate of 90+%. The govt we get is what we deserve, cos we voted them in.

    Four corners showed typical voters – people that appear to not actively follow politics and are largely uninformed, basing their opinions on what the MSM serve up. They wanted “Policy and Leadership” largely without specifying the policy areas of interest. You would think there was a massive spectrum to chose from: Fed ICAC, donations transparency, Oz wide common definitions of consent/abuse/bullying, codifying future pandemic responses, emissions reductions and transition planning, etc. etc.

    During an election, there is nowhere neutral where one can go that has a complete list of the various policies announced by the various parties. If the AEC did provide the infrastructure for same, then in the case of the LNP they should be required to specify which are core and which are non-core policies.

  19. Bert

    L.S. Roberts February 15, 2022 at 7:23 pm

    There should be a little square on the bottom of the voting paper that says:-
    None of the above.

    You can already do that, just leave the ballot blank.

    One other thing I’d add, if you don’t vote, you have NO excuse to bitch and moan about the government we end up with.

  20. Al

    I’m coming in late to this discussion, but I always thought the main reason for compulsory voting was to ensure that safe seats remain safe. Also, the proportional system used for the Senate means that a candidate can be elected with a minuscule number of primary votes – it can’t really be compared with the lower house system.. That lower house system is of course flawed – as all such voting systems are – but it does at least give people the sense that their vote has been counted and has “made a difference”.

    My concern with non-compulsory voting is that Australians are, in general, uninterested and lazy, and many would not vote. Whether that would make a difference is another matter of course. However, I have no problem with people being required to take part in a fundamental civic duty.

    The American presidential voting system could almost have been designed to be the worst possible. It fails on almost every metric. An analysis I did a while back showed that – theoretically – a president could be elected with as little as 22% of the popular vote.

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