In defence of compulsory voting in Australia

Compulsory voting is one of the more idiosyncratic features of democracy in Australia, enforced as it is at state and federal levels of government, as well as at local elections for all states and territories except South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. In “coercing” citizens to participate in the democratic process, Australia is somewhat unique; as a research paper published by the UK Electoral Commission in June 2006 [PDF] notes (p.21):

Australia is widely considered to be, and is often identified as, the leading example of an effectively functioning compulsory voting system with compulsory registration.

By far the most common criticism of Australia’s compulsory voting system relates to the coercive element; the fact that the state is forcing individual citizens to do something. In a twisted philosophical sense, one could even argue (as many hardline libertarians, cynics, and just plain lazy folks do) that Australian governments impinge the human rights of citizens by forcing them to participate in the democratic process. It is an ironic commentary on the bodypolitik down under. In the developing world during the last century, thousands or perhaps even millions of activists gave up their lives or livelihoods for democracy and the right to vote, to select the people who govern them. In contrast, in first world Australia, we are probably more likely to get organised and fight for the right not to vote; to not have a say. Or perhaps more realistically, to just switch off, tune out, and coalesce with the couch.

Peter Brent, the author of the excellent Mumble blog (now resident at The Australian) recently posted an alternative critique of compulsory voting, focusing on the negative implications our current system has for participation. Brent observes:

… fewer young people are enrolling. Many assume it’s something that’s done automatically by “the government” and are surprised to find they can’t vote.

At last month’s election some 370 thousand people tried to vote but couldn’t, mainly because they weren’t on the roll. And more (we don’t know how many) simply turned around and left the polling place upon finding they weren’t on the roll.

The argument goes, in essence, if both enrolment and voting were voluntary, young people and other slightly addle-brained, unenrolled folk who rocked up at a polling place on the day of the election could have their vote counted. Furthermore, the coercive element so distasteful to libertarians would be removed from the picture, and potentially a greater proportion of people who wanted to have their say, could do so.

It is a fair point to make, but let’s take a step back and remind ourselves of the reality of compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting in modern Australia. One would have to think that it is in the interests of a functioning democracy to maximise the number of people who involve themselves in the democratic process. A democracy where less people participate is, almost by definition, less legitimate then one where a greater proportion of people participate. Even considering the additional 370,000 people who theoretically could have cast their vote at the August 2010 election if enrolment was simplified and voluntary, it seems certain that this figure would be dwarfed by the likely millions of people who just wouldn’t bother turning up if they didn’t think they had to. Voter turnout in the UK at the 2010 general election was around 65%, and in the United States presidential election of 2008, around 61%. Contrast this to the 93% of enrolled voters who turned out for the August 2010 federal election in Australia. That’s not a reflection of the Australia’s fervour for democracy, sadly, that frankly laudable figure is a product of compulsory voting.

Secondly, squarely blaming compulsory voting and enrolment for our electoral system’s failings seems a bit wrong-footed. If there are indeed thousands of electors out there who were unaware that they had to be enrolled at their current address in order to vote, surely this is suggestive of a failure in electoral education or “ease of use”, as much as anything else. Technology-wise, clearly the AEC needs to allow people to directly update their enrolment online; this need has been underscored by GetUp’s legal victory just prior to the election. The bottom line is that the AEC should be granted the wherewithal by government to ensure that people know their democratic responsibilities. Where feasible, interdepartmental information (e.g. records of address changes) could be leveraged to assist this process, and to prompt people to ensure that their enrolment information is up to date.

Finally, let’s reconsider the “coercive” line of argument. Really, when it comes to the crunch, our system of compulsory enrolment and voting is not really very coercive at all. We’re not talking carrot and stick here; we’re talking carrot and wet noodle. One could even successfully argue that both enrolment and voting are effectively voluntary in Australia already. The fine for not voting federally is a not particularly catastrophic $20. People who decide to vote on the day but who do not want to support a particular candidate as a “protest” can vote informal if they so choose. For those who find it logistically difficult to vote on the actual election day, there are a myriad of excuses one can provide to the AEC in order to vote early or via the post. That are quite literally a barrel of ways to skin the coercion cat for those self-absorbed voters who are really interested in doing so.

Do we want a political system where more people have a say in who forms government, or one where less people have a say? Obviously its a rhetorical question, and to the extent that we can greater empower the AEC and government departments to help people exercise their democratic responsibilities, compulsory voting is not something we should be whinging about. The right not to participate in keeping democracy healthy in Australia is not a right people should be wasting valuable intellectual energy fighting for.