Compulsory Voting – Yea or Nay?

So next Saturday, Australia goes to the polls. All of it. Not just those bits of it that are really motivated, or happen to feel like it, or have nothing else to do. Australia. All Australians over eighteen, men and women, black and white, will be voting to elect their next leader on Saturday.

Because they have to. Because here in Australia…

Voting is Compulsory

That picture (which says “voting is compulsory”, just in case it didn’t load), was taken from a guide entitled “Your Official Guide to the 2010 federal election”, which came through my door last week. Given that the actual Australians in my house may want it to actually find out about voting, I maybe shouldn’t have run away with it to do research for a blog…but I did anyway. And this is how come I know that Australia has an Alternative Vote system, that people living more than 8km from a polling place may apply for a postal vote, and that prisoners serving sentences less than three years long are entitled to vote. What it noticeably fails to mention is exactly what happens to anyone who fails to turn up to vote – I’ve heard elsewhere mention of either a $55 or an $80 dollar fine.

Anyway, on with the show. What I thought I’d do here is run a little thought experiment, drawing on the Australian election paraphernalia and the recent UK general election for examples. Basically, what I’m asking is – should the UK follow Australia, and introduce compulsory voting? I’ll try and figure out what my own opinion is over the course of the next few paragraphs, but like a BBC newscast that can’t be bothered to go and get its own news reports, I’m inviting you to participate. What do you think – the solution to voter apathy, or a desertion of our freedoms? If you’re not British, but from some other optional-voting democracy, substitute your home country in and see what you reckon. If you’re an Australian, meanwhile, it’d be fascinating to hear your perspective. I’ve broken my own response down into what seem the most obvious points to consider.

Point one: voter apathy.

Essentially, under the Australian system this can no longer exist. Sort of. The system is, naturally, still a secret ballot – so the voting public could quite easily turn up to the polls en masse and simply refuse to put numbers against the names. Still, that’s not really apathy in the same way as lying in bed watching The Flintstones while everyone else goes and chooses a leader. Incidentally, I saw The Flintstones on telly the other day. It hasn’t aged well.

But putting Barney Rubble aside, I think this is where the Aussie system scores high. Never forget, the seats won by the BNP at the last European Parliament elections weren’t actually the result of a higher BNP vote – they were the result of a higher proportion of votes going to the BNP as a result of fewer voters turning out. By making sure that the lunatic fringe gets no higher a proportion of votes than it actually represents, compulsory voting neatly nips all this sort of thing in the bud.

Point two: the issues on the table.

There’s a flipside to this, though – it adds the bored demographic. Those people who wouldnt vote in a different country are made to in Australia. The sort of person who is completely apathetic towards politics can be safely ignored by the big parties in other countries – here, they’re another demographic to be wooed. This means that the issues which the parties’ advertising campaigns highlight do tend towards the trivial. A copy of “B-mag, Brisbane’s Leading Lifestyle Magazine” which I have in front of me boasts a Q&A with Labor PM Julia Gillard and Liberal-National leader of the opposition Tony Abbott. The questions which readers have sent in follow a pretty strict theme; self-interest. A pensioner asks what the leaders will do for pensioners. A father of four asks about the rising cost of living. The person asking about financial assistance for stay-at-home mums is female, but it’s pure presumption on my part to conclude that she’s a stay-at-home mother herself. But she is.

So; good thing or bad? Like most things, it’s a little of both. The good is that it reduces the number of big glossy adverts pushing soundbite policies – instead, issues which actually affect people’s lives are addressed.

However, the downside here is my least favourite thing about compulsory voting. It reduces the scale of the debate. The only ideological, rather than pragmatic, issue addressed in the B-Mag Q&A is the refugee debate I mentioned last week – and both major parties take an anti-refugee stance. The movie Persepolis offered us the line that “the age of grand ideals is dead”. If, like me, you regard this as a lament rather than a practical step forward, compulsory voting seems likely to help nail the coffin shut. It’s logical really – those who take a passionate stance on ideological or humanitarian issues are the sort who are going to be voting anyway, so if you add people who would otherwise stay at home to the mix, that obviously decreases the proportion of the voting public which the idealists make up. It’s not just the nasty little fascist parties who find their influence diminished, it’s all minority views. Sad, but true.

Point three: the campaigns.

I mentioned in the point above that there were less big glossy adverts. In the UK General Election, we had Cameron, Clegg, or whichever member of the Labour Party was feeling closest to photogenic that day gazing sincerely out of billboards next to PR-perfect slogans all over the country. While some of the campaigns got a little bitchy around the edges, most campaigning focused at least vaguely on the party making the advert.

Not so here. There’s the odd shiny-faced billboard, but mostly the campaigning is down and dirty, negative publicity stuff. Every political advert on the telly box except for the occasional Green Party broadcast mentions only the name of the party which it attacks. Adverts are dedicated mostly to either lambasting the incumbent Government’s lack of achievements in this area or the other, or to loudly pointing up inconsistencies in Tony Abbott’s statements in various fields, especially his opposition to a recession-fighting economic stimulus, and his apparent refusal to rule out a return to “WorkChoices”, an unpopular former scheme regarding workplace relations rights.

So, good thing or bad? Frankly, my dear, it makes no odds. Well, except that there’s none of those amusingly vandalised Conservative Party billboards – this is, however, thoroughly made up for by a TV ad attacking the Labor Party which ends with a black-and-white clip of two trains crashing into each other head on for no apparent reason other than it’s really funny. Which it is. We’ll call this a draw.

Point four: what doesnt change.

Like the UK and America, Australia has essentially a two-party duopoly. Like the UK, the coming election could well end up with a third, more progressive party controlling the balance of power (Australia is ahead of Britain already in this respect, with it’s vaguely proportional voting system. That’s a different topic, though). Like the UK, anti-immigration policy seems depressingly successful as an electoral tactic. Like the recent UK election, it’s a battle between an incumbent centrist Labour/Labor party and an opposition based slightly further to the right – although here, those are confusingly called the Liberals.

All in all, it looks like this is what elections in Westernised countries in the current era come down to – centre-ish versus centre-right, with a few little progressive alternatives bobbing around hoping to secure enough seats to be a nuisance.

So, now that I’ve had a skim through the most obvious issues, what do I endorse? The enforced suffrage of the Australians or the voluntary but apathy-inducing British method? The answer, of course, is that I don’t know, and that the ideal solution would be a country where everyone wanted to vote anyway so it didn‘t make any difference. On balance, I think I’m inclined to be nervous about the extent to which compulsory voting shunts any sort of idealism to one side and leads to an over-focus on self-interested, broadly financial matters. But I’m projecting wildly without having seen the results, so anything I write now really only reflects half of the story. It’ll be fascinating to see what kind of results this Australian electorate – every man and woman of it – give their country in one week’s time.

Obligatory disclaimers to finish off! I’m an interested observer, nothing more; no particularly in-depth research went into this article (unless you count reading a whole three pages of B-Mag), and if I’ve missed out on some massively important aspect of the difference between compulsory and non-compulsory voting, I won’t be in the slightest bit surprised. Let me know!

6 thoughts on “Compulsory Voting – Yea or Nay?

  1. Wait, wait, you missed an ad! Maybe it doesn’t run very often, but it stuck out to me because it was astonishingly civil and failed to sling any mud. I don’t remember who sponsored it, though, so that may have been the difference. It was a bunch of people talking about how they all voted Labor party for the last election, and liked a lot of the things they did, but didn’t like how they flip-flopped on the environment, so this time they were going to vote Green party in the Senate to hold them accountable. Have you seen that one? I was very surprised by it.

    As for the major topic, I think I fall somewhere further out than you. While I agree that in any good democracy the citizens should care about the issues and who’s running their country, and therefore WANT to vote, my experience with people (especially in my age bracket) tells me that compulsory voting is a terrible idea. Maybe this is just my intense cynicism talking, but I firmly believe that anybody disinterested enough to not vote shouldn’t be voting at all. If they can’t even be bothered to turn out to vote on their own, how can they possibly be expected to pay enough attention to make an informed decision? Thus, the idea of forcing all of those people to participate comes off as inherently stupid to me.

    A large part of this probably comes from my experience with American elections, where there is a definite tendency for electoral campaigns to turn into beauty contests. And I mean that literally. I know people who voted for Al Gore over George Bush not because of their ideological or political differences, but because they thought Gore had a better haircut. These people should not be voting. They should be getting their nails done.

    Additionally, I can’t say your assessment that Western democracies always come down to “centre-ish versus centre-right” is correct. Maybe in the UK, but in the US, it’s very much “far left vs. far right”, with the majority of Americans stuck in the middle, annoyed with the divide but afraid to vote for the center-ish parties because that would be “throwing your vote away.” Which is complete rubbish, and results in many moderates identifying with parties they aren’t truly aligned with, and then getting into fights with one another over ideological differences that aren’t actually there.

  2. Far left vs far right? Maybe I’m thinking in terms of greater extremes – to me, far left versus far right means Marxism vs fascism… I won’t pretend to have more than a passing knowledge of US politics, but I’m surprised to hear the Democrats especially referred to as far left – I thought of them as the sort of centrish alternative to the rightwing Republicans?

    Apart from that, yeah, that all rings pretty true – especially the “my experience with people (especially in my age bracket)” …*shudder*.

    And no, haha, I missed out on that advert… I did have Tony Abbott’s strangely elongated smile staring out at me from at least three channels last night though. I had to go and hide under my blanket for a while.

    1. Well, Democrats will have you believe that they are centrish, because they like to talk about acceptance of opposing viewpoints and loving everybody equally, but they aren’t at all. The town that I come from is about 98% Democrat, and god forbid you should be anything else. If you weren’t vegan, driving a hybrid car run on soybeans, spending your spare time discussing Marxist theory with a parent who got thrown in jail for protesting Vietnam and dedicating all of your emotional energy to hating Republicans, you were an evil fascist bastard. Needless to say, Democrats are pretty left of center. Especially in Seattle.

      But the bigger problem for me is how reactionary Democrats are. They don’t think for themselves. At least Republicans have a central premise that they base their political platform on. They have to please the fiscal conservatives, who champion a laissez-faire business style, and the religious conservatives, who want social restrictions to match their moral beliefs. Say what you will about those policies, but at least the Republicans have an internal reason for drawing the lines where they do.

      Then the Democrats come along, look at the Republicans, say “oh, they’re doing that? Okay, we’ll do the opposite!” and get really offended if you question their reasoning.

      What this produces is a painfully bi-partisan system, divided along lines that a lot of regular people wouldn’t necessarily have drawn. Take me, for instance. I’m Libertarian, which basically means that I think people should be left alone as much as possible to make what they can of themselves and do whatever makes sense for them. Fiscally conservative, socially liberal (although lately Libertarian candidates have been leaning a bit too far right for my liking on social issues). Thus, the Democrats think I’m evil for disagreeing with the graded tax system, and the Republicans think I’m a evil for supporting abortion and gay marriage. Many of my friends have been met with the same criticisms, and chosen one side or the other to avoid being excluded (in Seattle, that usually means Democrat, due to the overwhelming majority, but a few have gone Republican), disregarding their own beliefs in the face of an inane bipartisanship that doesn’t even make any sense in the first place.

      And yes, I vote third party. We have to start somewhere. :)

  3. Compulsory voting is the democratic equivalent of kissing the hand of the priest whether you Believe or not, with the result that the priest then claims social legitimacy whether he listens to what God says or not. The elected is endorsed, the voter is complicit, the ritual obeisance is the evidence – the massive number of non voters in the UK punctures the politicians’ balloons. Chucking the Government out has for forty years proved to be a transient delight – ignoring the party politicians, now that’s an expanding pleasure, and don’t they know it. I confess I have been a conscientious voter, but I’m trying to get over it – the irony is that if voting was made compulsory in the UK, voter turnout would hit rock bottom. Disrespect is the order of the day, and how meticulously and greedily the politicians have gone about being worthy of it.Make my day punks, make voting compulsory.

  4. Hello. I’m Korean. We did the parliamentary election on the 11th of April.
    But our voting rate was too low, about 54%, as you know OECD countries recommend more than 70%. Therefore, It’s being a hot issue to whether accept the system in Korea or not.
    That’s why I’m interesting about the voting system and had read yours.

    Anyway, I agree with the voting system.
    Because the purpose of the voting is select the representative who works for us. The right to exercise one’s franchise forms the cornerstone of any democracy. The essence of democracy lies in voting. Compulsory voting increases turnout. Legitimacy of government is more accepted by a high turnout.

    Another reason is that the opposite side says : “Vote is not duty, but right.”
    But, I think this is a kind of paradox. If voters do not want to support any given choice, they may cast spoilt votes or blank votes.

    For example, Political scientist Arend Lijphart writes that compulsory voting has been found to increase voting by 7–16% in national elections, and by even more in local and provincial elections and elections to the European Parliament. The large increases in turnout are found even where the penalties for not voting are extremely low. (From Wiki)

    Therefore, we need the voting system and let the people participate and make a interest in politics and our country.

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