A brief digression on the compulsory voting debate

Last week, there was something of a beat-up over the ol’ compulsory voting debate in Australia when the Supreme Court heard a challenge to its legality.

Some bright spark wrote The Advertiser suggesting that compulsory ballot attendance was akin to a fascist national roll call.

The letter was signed Nick Minchin, though I’m unsure whether it was in fact our esteemed former South Australian senator or some floozy stealing his cred.

In either case, this kind of argument crops up frequently regarding our very functional and surprisingly well-thought electoral system, not just in the matter of voluntary vs. compulsory voting but regarding preferential ballots as well (a subject I’ve no time for right now).

The point is that such arguments are no more than a ridiculously misguided exercise in abstract libertarianism.

I agree that being forced to cast a vote would be undemocratic. But as Minchin said, even if we interpret the electoral law that way, it remains unenforceable. However, (mildly) compelling us (with a very modest fine) to show up at the voting booth is an entirely different and worthwhile proposition. At least this way, there is an increased chance that people casting a donkey or blank vote have done so as a deliberate choice, instead of a lazy, convenient omission because they couldn’t be bothered walking down to the local school or church hall.

(Briefly, the same reasoning applies to calls for an end to preferential ballot papers – there is a case for voluntary preferencing, which avoids people being forced to effectively cast a vote for candidates they don’t want or approve of, but not for its removal altogether).

We must all make the effort to renew our car registration, file tax returns and so on. Surely requiring people to attend polling stations and thus make a considered decision about who does or does not deserve to govern our country, isn’t too much of a Nazi-like imposition?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A brief digression on the compulsory voting debate

  1. If you simply do nothing on polling day you can be fined. If you continue to do nothing you can be sentenced to jail. And if you continue to do nothing the police can beat down your door, enter your home and drag you away. And if you resist with enough force, they could even kill you.

    It is a fascist policy? We have a choice. Encourage people to vote using peaceful means such as good ideas and policy, or we can use threats of violence. It is better to empower and inspire people than threaten force.

    Only 81% of Australians turnout on polling day to vote. Our turnouts are lower than many countries where voting is voluntary including Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Malta. Over 10% of Australians are not registered to vote and we also have high levels of donkey and informal votes – so our real voter participation is probably a lot lower than 81%.

    Only ten countries in the world enforce compulsory voting and if you take a good look at the other 9 countries, fascist dictatorships they are not far off.

    Our decision to vote should be democratic.

    • I’m not sure if you were being deliberately hyperbolic, but I fail to see what your first paragraph has to do with the opinion I’ve put forward in this post.

      I would IN NO WAY support a person being imprisoned, let alone through such violent means as you describe, for disobeying the requirement either to ACTUALLY VOTE (i.e. make a definitive choice between a list of available candidates) OR to simply have their name crossed off the ballot list (i.e. present to vote without necessarily casting one). In EITHER situation, the legal requirement should be enforced through no more than a fine, as with other civil infringements. If this is not the case, then it should be made so – but that is a separate argument.

      You say we have a choice to encourage people to vote using peaceful means and that it’s “better to empower and inspire people than threaten force,” which I entirely agree with. But a system in which people are legally allowed to cast a “blank” vote, but are nonetheless expected/required to actually show up and do so, is in no way incompatible with that statement. In fact, such a system makes uninspiring “ideas and policy” even more apparent, because we can measure the number of people casting “blank” votes EVEN AFTER PRESENTING AT A BOOTH (strongly suggesting that such votes were the direct result of dissatisfaction with all parties/candidates on offer) RATHER THAN a situation where the reasons for NOT VOTING could range from genuine and justified political disconnection (requiring a renewed focus on quality policy, etc) to people simply being lazy, uninformed or apathetic without reason.

      To recap, my argument is for a system much like the one we have now in practice (though perhaps not in legal technicality) where people are expected/required (on punishment of monetary fines, NOT violence or imprisonment) to physically present for voting BUT NOT TO NESESSARILY CAST A VOTE. Blank voting would be allowed – and in such a system, it’s more likely that such blank votes are the result of consciously rejecting all existing political options, not just lazy disengagement.

      I assume your statistic about our voter turnouts being lower than many countries where voting is voluntary are meant to suggest that compulsory voting encourages dissatisfaction with politics, because parties/candidates become complacent in how they treat voters? But surely that says more about the culture of those nations (all of them being notably “civic minded” countries) than it does about the effects of voluntary vs. compulsory voting? The United States and Britain have much lower turnouts than we do – the problem is, nobody knows if the large numbers of people in those countries NOT casting votes are doing so as a deliberate, conscious choice or simply because they forget, can’t be bothered or are otherwise socially marginalised.

      In a system where turning up is compulsory but selecting no candidate is a valid option, we can assume with much greater accuracy that blank votes being cast are the result of consciously (dissatisfied) civic engagement, i.e. they are in fact the result of bad “ideas and policy”.

      That might not be exactly how our current system appears on the books, and if so we should change that. But it’s a secret ballot so, in practice, it’s what we have. And it works on principle too. There is no infringement of your libertarian right to choose “no candidate” – only of your civic right to spend 30 minutes of your time doing something else. And as I pointed out, such requirements of our time are often made for the purposes of making society run smoothly, without anyone kicking up a fuss.

      The guts of this argument against compulsory voting seem to be that it forces individuals to make a choice between options they don’t want. But it doesn’t. It only requires them to consider the question. How can that be considered a profound infringement on liberty?

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