On September 7th, and in the weeks before courtesy of pre-poll and postal voting, Australians will take part in an important democratic ritual to peacefully decide their government for the next three years. It is a process we have conducted for decades with high-level engagement and participation. This important cornerstone of our democracy is fundamentally attributed to the presence of compulsory voting.
First codified into law in 1924, compulsory voting was initially designed to boost turnout amongst a disaffected electorate that registered only 60% voter turnout in the 1922 Federal Election. Since then, Australia’s turnout at elections has never once fallen below 90% of the enrolled population and leads the likes of Van Badham in The Guardian to argue that we now live in “the most enfranchised Washminster democracy in the world.”
Despite this apparent success, it’s important to note that Australia is out of step with most of the world; there are currently only 32 countries with compulsory voting, of which 19 (including Australia) pursue it through enforcement mechanisms such as fines for those who fail to vote. When observing the list of countries (which comprise only 9.6% of the world’s population) that use compulsory voting in elections, there’s tellingly little to explain their mutual presence alongside Australia in pursuing greater voter turnout.
They are from various parts of the world (with South America most strongly represented with 6 countries), speak a diverse set of languages (English is the majority language in only Australia and Singapore), have a varied set of political systems (some are Presidential, some Monarchic, others Parliamentary) and have differing origins as nation-states (be they colonial or otherwise).
Countries that enforce compulsory voting
Voter turnout at last election
N.B. Some nations are removed from the list due to compulsory voting only enforced or legislated for regions or for specific elements of the population. Source: Australian Electoral Commission – http://www.aec.gov.au/About_AEC/Publications/voting/files/compulsory-voting.pdf
Considering comparable democracies that don’t enforce compulsory voting, we observe stark differences in voter engagement. In the United States last year, 70.33% of registered voters participated in the Presidential Election, which actually equates to only 53.57% of the voting-age population participating in what was a closely fought and policy-defining election. Alarmingly in the world’s oldest democracy, the voter turnout figure has steadily declined from a peak of 95.83% in the 1964 Presidential Election, whilst the voting-age-population turnout figure peaked at only 62.92% in 1972’s election. Similarly alarming figures can be observed in the United Kingdom with voter turnout only at 65.77% in 2010’s election equating to only 61.06% of voter-age-population turnout.
But what to make of these comparisons? Whilst we can’t easily ascertain the fundamental reasons behind why certain countries do or don’t embrace compulsory voting, we can clearly note the benefits from such a process as is conducted in Australia, and the consequences of the lack of it in democracies like the United States.
As Badham eloquently surmises, “while voting remains compulsory, that the whole nation is obliged to go to the polls, so must the polls go – physically and practically – to the whole nation.” Compulsory voting essentially forces the government to conduct free, efficient and timely elections that maximise voter engagement; utilising such techniques as voting on weekends, management by an independent electoral commission and simple processes to register on electoral rolls.
The flip-side in countries where voting is optional, is that there’s no obligation from the government to enfranchise its citizenry and potentially lead to active dis-enfranchisement. Such is the trend we’ve seen in the United States of late where Republican-controlled states find ways to restrict early voting, implement punitive voter-ID measures that overtly target minorities such as African-Americans that overwhelmingly favour Democrats in elections.
Moreover, compulsory voting pulls our politics to the centre, as candidates must appeal not to the energised extremes on the left or right, but the majority of voters who are far less ideological and more pragmatic in their voting. While it may make for boring campaigns, it guarantees limited partisanship and more stable policymaking between terms of government.
Counter to some other members of the Coalition who’ve advocated a move to voluntary voting (such as Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie or former Senator and Howard Government Minister Nick Minchin), Nationals Senate Leader Barnaby Joyce clearly encapsulates the need for a compulsory system. He says “what I like about the Australian democracy is that when you [campaign for election] you have to make sure you don’t startle the troops. If you startle the troops you will not get voted in.” Whereas in America he suggests, candidates’ messages have to “work more to the fringes because you’re more motivated about getting people out of bed to vote rather than knowing that they have to vote because it is compulsory so don’t say anything too perverse.”
So whilst we may complain about having to go vote for Tony or Kevin on the 7th and bemoan the quality of political debate in Australia, we must be thankful for compulsory voting and the fact it safeguards our most integral democratic freedoms; the kinds that are still fought for around the world.