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.
I used to believe that compulsory voting in Australia was beneficial because I had the idea that “choosing not to vote serves as a vote against democracy”. Having spent a couple of elections handing out how to vote cards, and having been a scrutiniser at a polling booth vote tally, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are so many indifferent or ignorant electors made to vote, that there’s really no point enforcing compulsory voting. What’s the point of forcing electors to vote if they don’t care, or don’t know anything about who they’re voting for? This, and compulsory preferential voting in federal elections, I think Australia would be better off without. I personally feel that compulsory preferencing forces me to preference candidates for whom I have no preference at all, and only serves to perpetuate the political power of the two established major parties. This situation serves to destroy democracy more than enabling it.
I do not wholly agree. Compulsory voting has it’s merits – provided the following conditions are fulfilled:
It must be possible to hand in an “empty” vote. This ensures, that the vote is counted, but your vote is not assigned to any candidate or party.
By doing this, it becomes possible to reject all candidates but still raising the quorum.
It must be possible to vote for people and not automatically for their party. You are then saying, that a candidate is acceptable as a person without supporting his party at the same time. By doing this, you actively reject a party stance. “Ad personam”.
It must be possible to vote for a party while rejecting all their candidates as unsuitable and replacing them wirh other candidates, perhaps from orher parties, that you consider more suitable. “Mixed” vote.
Is this possible in Australia?
I am in favor of mandatory voting. To ask each of us to spend a half hour voting once every three years is not an onerous ask. We each can always choose to become informed, even if some of us choose not to.
I am not in favor of mandatory preferential voting. I would like to see a system in which if I vote for one candidate only, and that candidate fails to gain a majority, my vote falls by the wayside. That would be fair in that I voted, and my choice did not get up. This system could also end the “donkey vote” in which a disillusioned voter simply marks the ballot 1 2 3 from top to bottom .
When I cannot in good faith vote for any candidate, especially for a minority candidate because I know that due to preferential voting my vote will eventually go to one of the major parties, I vote informal. But, I do vote.