Democracy ill-served by compulsory voting

Bookmark and Share Ideas & Liberty | Morgan Begg
West Australian 24th December, 2015

That nearly 1000 West Australians have been convicted for the crime of not voting in last year's Senate election is more proof that it's time to make voting voluntary.

The special election - essentially an election repeat - came about because electoral commission staff lost 1375 ballot papers that may have determined the election outcome. Now, 964 people have been convicted for failing to vote in what was the third election in 13 months for West Australians. Worse still is the amount of informal votes. Senate voting is relatively uncomplicated, as you only need to tick one box "above the line".

That almost 33,000 voted informally is more likely a sign that though people were compelled to turn up, they didn't much care what became of their ballot paper. It is a sign, too, that coercing voters into turning up to booths is not the best way to run a democracy.

In simple terms, democracy does mean the majority rules. But Australia is a liberal democracy, and the right to vote is not a duty to vote. Indeed, the right to vote is the liberty to vote - or not, if one so chooses. So obvious is this around the world that Australia is one of the few countries to enforce compulsory voting. One need only look at our closest cousins in the Commonwealth - New Zealand, Canada and Britain - to see voluntary voting is possible, and works in a Westminster parliamentary system.

The question put is: which system best encourages civic engagement? The traditional argument is that by compelling people to turn up to the voting booth, then people will be compelled to consider their choice before casting a vote. There is little evidence to support this point of view. If there was, we would not see so many informal votes in elections.

Perhaps the better question is: what is civic engagement? Turning up and lodging a vote on election day is only the final step a person takes when taking part in the political world. On the first level, you have political discussion and debates held publicly and privately. After that, you might volunteer your time to a political cause you believe in. Or volunteer your time in election campaigns and make donations to candidates.

Considering all this, which system works best for enabling civic engagement? One unavoidable consequence of compulsory voting is that major parties devote their efforts in chasing the vote of the undecided and the less engaged. This means presenting a "least worst" option, and offloading core beliefs. Except core beliefs are the reason many would join a political party in the first place.

Inevitably, when neither political options are offering what supporters want, the supporters fall away. This is reflected in long-term data that shows membership of political parties has plummeted and continues to fall away.

At the same time, as people have become disaffected from those political parties, we see political parties effectively compensated by the public purse. The perverse incentive for the parties is to rely more and more on government largesse and less and less on party faithful. Correspondingly, government grows ever larger and spending ever higher. This all paints a picture of overall civic engagement suffering. And yet, compulsory voting is meant to "encourage" civic engagement? It just doesn't add up. What does add up is that with compulsory voting, you see more informal voting.

The informal vote is a legitimate political expression and a measure of how people view the political system. In the 2013 Federal election, more than 400,000 Senate votes, and 800,000 House of Representatives votes were informal. Such a significant informal vote suggests dissatisfaction goes beyond just the major parties - even he mainstream protest parties are being avoided.

Compulsory voting certainly isn't fixing this, but it does needlessly add to the workload of electoral commission staff. That we see lost ballots is perhaps not so surprising. If voting was voluntary, the parties would need to balance the interests of their own supporters, along with the swing voters. MPs in ultra-safe seats would no longer be able to rely on the automatic support that compulsory voting turns out. This would make politicians more representative and politics more democratic.

There are plenty of reasons to support the introduction of voluntary voting. And who knows - maybe under voluntary voting, the Australian Electoral Commission won't be inundated with ballots from people who didn't want to vote in the first place and voters won't need to be sent back to the polls for a mistake they didn't make.