Voting has been compulsory in Australia (federally) since 1924. Which meant the concept of optional voting was foreign to me until I started to understand the wider world and it’s politics.
For me, especially as a woman with a family history of Conscientious Objectors, rebels and Suffragettes, to NOT vote is an insult to those women who fought for that right, and to the Veterans before them who fought and died for the freedoms we enjoy today. One might argue it is the most important act one can perform as a citizen. The very basis of democracy relies on voters voting.
Those of us who agree with compulsory voting see it as a “civil responsibility” – like paying taxes, jury duty, donating blood or joining the armed forces. By requiring citizens to vote, the government gets the most accurate representation of what the population wants (political legitimacy). Prior to 1924 only 47-78% of eligible voters did so. Following the introduction of compulsory voting however, that number jumped to between 91-96%.¹ Countries that have repealed their compulsory voting laws have seen a drop of around 20-30% voter turnout.
There are of course many other benefits to compulsory voting such as improving political education, removing the ‘paradox of voting²’ dilemma, and the requirement to remove restrictions to voting, such as providing access to transport or absentee voting, and preventing employers from restricting voting. This also means that disadvantaged and minority voices are just as powerful as the privileged and the elite. Though sadly it took until 1962 for Aboriginal Australians to be granted the right to vote, and until 1983 for that right to become a requirement.
But this piece is focusing on voter turnout, as, from an outsider’s point-of-view (in a country where voting is compulsory) this seems to be a major factor in the outcome of the “popular vote” in the United States. In Australia, elections are not determined by turnout, they are decided by swing voters and won in the center. Even the “far right” is almost centrist compared to American politics. The outcome is genuinely decided by all citizens, not just those that decide to turn up on the day.
The Penny Guy³ created this video 4 years ago, but it is no less relevant today. It gives a fantastic visual on the Power of Your Vote – especially in a country where only about 50% of the population actually turn out, and where in 2016 only 9% of the country actually voted for Trump or Clinton in the primaries. Donald Trump was elected with only a quarter of eligible voters supporting him, and just 37% of eligible Britons voted to leave the European Union.
In 2015, former US president Barack Obama praised Australia’s system, saying it would be “transformative” if everyone voted in the United States.
Australia is one of only 19 countries out of 166 electoral democracies where voting is compulsory, and one of only nine that enforce it. It is the only English-speaking country that compels its citizens to vote. Australia is also one of only a few countries with preferential voting, which means a voter ranks candidates in order of preference, compared with most countries where the candidate with the most votes wins. Australia ranks 8th⁴ on the EIU’s⁵ Democracy Index with a score of 9.09 – described as “Full Democracy”.
The United States scores 25th with a score of 7.96 and is described as a “Flawed Democracy”. The United States lost it’s “Full Democracy” ranking in 2016. The decline reflected a fall “in popular confidence in the functioning of public institutions, a trend that predated — and aided — the election of Donald Trump,” according to the 2017 EIU report.
The decline in democratic confidence began in the late 1960s with the Vietnam war, civil rights movement, assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and the Watergate scandal. Over the past decade, it got worse following wars in the Middle East, a financial crisis, and persistent gridlock in Washington
Brian Klaas, author of “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy,” wrote in the Washington Post on President Trump’s 50th day in office (March 2017); “democracy will not function if Americans cannot be sure that the president’s claims are at least grounded in evidence-based reality.⁶” “How can democracy function when people can’t take the president literally?” Klaas asked.
In the interests of a balanced argument, those against compulsory voting will point out that in Sweden, New Zealand and Canada for instance, voting is not compulsory and they rank higher on the Democracy Index (3rd, 4th and 7th respectively) than Australia, clearly removing any suggestion that compulsory voting is the sole reason for a high ranking.
Simply, in the eyes of some, voting is a civil right (as opposed to a civil duty), and like the right to free speech and the right to an attorney, citizens have the ability to exercise their civil rights, but are not compelled to. Some religious organisations take the view that they should not participate in politics, and forcing them to vote denies them their freedom of religious practise.
And more extremely, compulsory voting, is essentially a compelled speech act, which violates freedom of speech because the freedom to speak necessarily includes the freedom not to speak.⁷
There are concerns about voters voting for candidates they have little or no knowledge about, and ‘donkey votes’ skewing a tight race. But even with these concerns, only about 6% of Australian voters lodge informal votes⁸. (My request to my fellow Aussies, if you don’t want to vote, lodge a blank ballot, removing your vote completely, instead of it potentially affecting the outcome.)
In reality, the only way to make real and lasting change, is to get into politics (something this writer has considered semi-seriously on occasion!!) – the next best thing is to vote. Vote with your heart, vote with your mind, but don’t let “others” have more say over who governs you, than you do.
- “Who voted in previous referendums and elections”. Australian Electoral Commission
- for a rational, self-interested voter, the costs of voting will normally exceed the expected benefits. The paradox disproportionately affects the socially disadvantaged, for whom the costs of voting tend to be greater
- Economist Intelligence Unit
- “Informal Votes by State”. Australian Electoral Commission