Changing Australia’s Voting System, Part II: Compulsory Or Not?

Following my post earlier in the week on a switch to first-past-the-post voting (FPTP), I wanted to put another idea on the table tonight — the abolition of compulsory voting. After all, the idea of forcing people to vote is ridiculous.

As much as I would like to see the long-overdue reinstatement of FPTP voting in Australia, something I’m far more passionate about is removing the compulsion people in this country have imposed upon them to vote in the first place.

I’ve only ever heard three arguments in favour of compulsory voting, and to my mind all three are worthless.

1. Compulsory voting ensures all citizens are empowered.

Rubbish. It does nothing of the sort.

Having spent dozens of election nights over the past 20 years scrutinising votes, the informal pile (and the donkey vote) are two simple illustrations of just how empowered some people feel.

Indeed, I’ve seen some very interesting messages written on ballot papers (mostly unsuitable to print here) with no vote cast on the paper alongside the message at all.

I have, however, seen lots of “votes” for Superman, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, etc…

People ensure people feel empowered, not the law; and certainly not a legislative requirement that they’re forced to vote.

2. Compulsory voting makes Australia the most democratic country in the world.

I take my readers to be very articulate and intelligent, but for the sake of the rhetoric, if anyone’s silly enough to believe that statement I’ll spell it out.

Removing the choice of an individual to vote in a democracy or to abstain is by its very nature an utterly undemocratic act.

Every citizen of this country has the right to vote; correspondingly, every citizen of this country ought to have the right not to vote.

And forcing people to vote hardly promotes choice.

3. If voting were optional, turnout would collapse.

Now we’re near the money; the great fear that 60% of registered voters wouldn’t bother to show up.

As a democrat in the true sense of the word — I’m not talking about the left-wing liberals in the US, or “social democracy,” but a genuine belief in democracy itself — I say that whoever wants to turn up to exercise their vote should do so, and those who do not wish to do so ought not be forced.

If anyone has any other reasons as to why voting should be compulsory, please comment and give your reasoning; but to me, the arguments for it don’t stack up.

And fining people however much it is these days for not voting seems to me to be unfair, unwarranted, unjust, and completely unacceptable.

I confess I don’t know what the going rate for a fine for not voting is: I’ve voted at every election since I turned 18 in 1990, and voted Liberal in all of them except one Queensland state election at which I voted informally (long story, but it makes sense).

That leads to another myth about compulsory voting: that people are compelled only to go and get their name crossed off the electoral roll.

After that, as the story goes, they can lodge a formal vote; lodge an informal vote; write a message or draw a pretty picture on their ballot paper; or pocket the paper and do God-alone-knows what with it afterwards.

If the compulsion is simply to get one’s name crossed off the roll, what’s the point?

I believe, and I have always believed, that voting in Australia should be optional.

If people don’t want to vote, there’s no reason (or justification) for compelling them.

Forcing people to vote means that people who don’t care less about politics, government, or what come of the process are pushed into polling booths to record votes that distort the result those who actually give a damn might otherwise deliver.

Forcing some people to vote probably reinforces the resentment and anger some people feel towards the governance of this country: far from engendering a feeling of empowerment, it likely engenders feelings of entrapment.

And why in hell — someone, please tell me — why in hell someone who wishes to democratically choose not to exercise their democratic right to vote should be slugged with a fine?

When I explain that point to friends of mine in the UK and Canada and the US, they treat me as if I’m insane; the concept of a fine for not voting is beyond comprehension to them.

And so it should be; the whole idea of it is contemptible.

But returning to the point about falling turnout, it could be more of a blessing than a curse.

In my earlier post on voting in Australia, I spoke (in the context of FPTP) of the incentive for individual candidates and parties to muster as many votes as they could in individual constituencies to ensure they won.

The principle is identical here: the incentive for candidates and parties to get people out to vote is such that their offerings to the electorate may improve beyond sight.

There will always be those who couldn’t care less, and whilst society cannot and must not take the reciprocal view of these people, freed from the obligation (under monetary penalty) they simply won’t vote.

There is an argument that such people would cease to be entitled to criticise government — and it’s not a tangent I propose to follow here.

I think this group accounts for more, but not too much more, than the combined non-turnout and informal totals are today; perhaps 15% of the eligible electorate.

As for the rest, however, a move to voluntary voting would create competition for electoral support which might breathe new life into our democratic processes.

Clearly, legal safeguards would need to be tightened to stamp out any increase in inducements, coercion and so forth, but to create a market of democracy?

Where candidates and parties have to compete to get people to vote in the first place, and then to vote for them specifically?

It could reinvigorate politics in this country.

It could re-engage, or engage at all, many thousands of people in the business of running the country.

It would make our wonderfully democratic country truly democratic in every sense.

And it would almost certainly put an end to the plasticine, saccharine, stage-managed farces that pass for “modern” Australian election campaigns.

The type of campaigns that turn so many people off.

“Moving forward” anyone? Just an example.

I’m a passionate advocate for choice in the right to vote; I’d prefer to see it coupled with FPTP as an electoral system, but even Optional Preferential Voting (OPV) combined with voluntary voting would be a big improvement on what we have now.

As ever, this is a big subject and I have barely scratched its surface.

Tell me…what do you think?