In Praise of Compulsory Voting

Compulsory voting is not the norm in most Western democratic countries, as most readers will know. It is not unheard of, but it is rare, though not as rare as our preferential or ATV voting system for House of Representatives elections.

But focusing on compulsory voting, and if we limit ourselves to full elections and to developed European countries, there are Belgium and Greece and that’s pretty much it (though Holland had it and got rid of it back in the late 1960s). As for the rest of the Anglosphere, forget it.

So we in Australia are unusual in having compulsory voting. And we have had it for some time. It came in federally way back in 1924, and my home state of Queensland was the first jurisdiction to mandate it, back further in 1915.

I mention the rarity of compulsory voting, and its long-standing usage here in Australia, because back at the start of 2005 when I emigrated over here after eleven years of life in New Zealand I was no fan of compulsory voting. Not that I’d thought much about it. Indeed no one hears much about it in my native Canada or in the United Kingdom or even in New Zealand. And it would never hit the radar in the United States. So it’s not an idea that people think about in those countries.

Still, compulsory voting seemed distasteful to me when I arrived here. It felt odd to think that the state was forcing people to vote. Why shouldn’t people be left to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to vote?

The rest of this essay is my attempt to answer that question. You see, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve come around to thinking that compulsory voting is a good idea in a developed, long-established Western democracy such as Australia. 

The argument between compulsory voting fans and voluntary voting proponents is ultimately one on the plane of principle. But one’s attachment to any principle cannot be divorced from what is known as “the facts”. And so let me begin with a few facts.

At the last federal election in Canada, the country most similar to Australia in terms of its constitutional history, and my native land, the voter turnout was 61 per cent. That was in the middle of last year. The election before that it was 59 per cent. You have to go all the way back to the 1993 election to hit a turnout of close to 70 per cent.

Meantime provincial elections in Canada achieve voter turnout rates like 49 per cent (at the Ontario election in October last year) and 40 per cent (at the last Alberta election in 2008) to take what are arguably Canada’s two most economically important provinces.

And then there is the United Kingdom. The last general election there in 2010 saw voter turnout hit 65 per cent. The one before that was 61 per cent. You have to go back to Winston Churchill’s return to office in 1951 to see a high figure like 82 per cent.

What of the United States? In the last two presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 the turnout rate was 57 per cent (if you look at the voting age population) or 63 per cent (if you look at registered voters); it was 51 per cent (of the voting age population) in 2000; and it was 49 per cent (ditto) back in 1996 when Bill Clinton and his cigars were re-elected to a second term.

And if that doesn’t seem like a great rate of participation, it looks magnificent compared to voting turnout rates for Congress in non-presidential years. The most recent such rate for the 2010 Congressional elections was 38 per cent; it was 37 per cent for 2006; and 37 per cent for 2002.

Next to such figures our neighbours across the Tasman look positively wonderful, with voter turnout rates of 74 per cent at the last New Zealand election in 2011; 78 per cent in the election before that; 79 per cent in the one before that; and 73 per cent in the one that preceded that. Of course one is tempted to invoke John Cleese’s sarcastic remark that “that is high praise indeed” when we remember the turnout rates with which New Zealand is being compared.

And against all that comparative data, recall that with our compulsory voting in Australia, federal election turnout rates are always somewhere in the mid-90s. It was 95 per cent at the last election.

So even conceding that there are different ways to measure voter turnout rates, that there is room to concede that the figures may not be perfect, and also allowing for any other quibbles anyone may wish to make, what is not arguable is that in Australia a far higher percentage of people of voting age vote to choose their government than in the countries with which we would normally compare ourselves. We are talking about somewhere between an extra fifth to two-fifths of the voting population who have a say in choosing who will govern them here in Australia.

That’s an awful lot of people to ignore in the name of some such principle as “liberty” that proponents of voluntary voting invoke. Or put differently, voluntary voting would surely seem a more attractive principle if voter turnout percentages were in the 80s or 90s. If you doubt that, ask yourself if someone’s support for voluntary voting could easily be sustained if voluntary voter turnout rates plummeted, say, down to 30 per cent.

Now I don’t for a moment think these numbers by themselves provide a knockout argument in favour of compulsory voting. But I do think they should seriously worry defenders of voluntary voting. 

Which brings me to the core of the argument. And that core relates to how one understands democracy and to what one expects it to do. I have argued in these pages (“The Idea of Human Rights in a Civil Society”, May 2011) that like many core notions “democracy” is an essentially contested concept. Different people use the term in different ways and there is no way to resolve such disagreements by consulting a dictionary.

When it comes to democracy, broadly speaking there are the “thins” and the “fats”. The thins see democracy as a procedural tool for allowing the majority to rule. What you do is count all of us voters as equal and then let the numbers count. Democracy is all about how decisions are taken. It may correlate with very good substantive outcomes—that as an empirical generalisation democracies are more desirable places to live than other places on average, over time (which I believe is true)—but there is no necessary connection. Democracies, on the thin understanding, can produce bad substantive outcomes, can even pass illiberal laws.

Meanwhile the fats have a different conception of democracy. They take the core idea related to how decisions ought to be made and they stuff it full of moral abstractions; they make it more morally pregnant. So democracy now means not just “how” decisions are taken. It also includes a judgment related to “what” those decisions are and whether they are acceptable ones (to them or to some group that is by definition smaller than the voting population as a whole).

So the fats now get to assess how rights-respecting some statute passed by the elected legislature was, or whether it was unduly illiberal. And if was too illiberal, well on this new understanding of democracy it just doesn’t count as democratic, even though it is a product of the majority’s legislature.

I think that at the heart of our debate about compulsory voting there swirls this other debate about how best to understand democracy—in a thin, procedural, let-the-numbers-count sense or in a more morally pregnant, build-in-necessary-substantive-outcomes sense.

I am a “thin” when it comes to how best to understand democracy. I think it’s best to understand it as a procedural tool for making decisions. The “fat” conception is less attractive, to my way of understanding, because it leaves wholly out of sight two things. First off, people disagree about what is and isn’t rights-respecting or liberal or in keeping with liberty or all such substantive calls. Smart, nice, well-informed people simply disagree. And second, if it is not to be all of us counted equally as voters who will decide these substantive moral calls, then at least sometimes it will be the top judges and the overseas committee members of United Nations agencies (and other internationalists) who will now get to make some of the authoritative calls otherwise made by the voters and hence who will, on this fat understanding of democracy, have more say on a host of debatable social policy issues than you and your fellow citizens.

That will be the practical effect in the real world. It’s a neat trick. All of a sudden, presto, our redefined and more morally laden fatter notion of democracy builds in a role for an exclusive group of people, a role that lets them gainsay and second-guess the majority. And it still gets to be called “democracy”.

It’s not unfair to call this fatter understanding the aristocratic conception of democracy, though I concede that in today’s world no one wants to admit that he or she is an aristocrat and prefers top judges and overseas committee members of United Nations agencies to have considerably more say on a host of debatable social policy issues than the voters. Nevertheless that is the effect of fatter conceptions.

So for me it’s better to be able to say, “This is a democracy (given the procedural way in which its government was chosen) but it’s a bad democracy” rather than having to say “This government did such bad things that it doesn’t get to count as a democracy”, which is where the fat understanding inevitably takes you. For thins you can still debate whether some place is or is not a democracy, but the debate all takes place on the plane of whether the numbers really did count (secret ballots? a chance for all sides to put their case? scrutineers? and so on). 

Now we can go back to the issue of compulsory voting. If you’re a thin about democracy, like me, then what you want is a procedural method for letting the numbers count, for measuring the values, judgments, sentiments and views of the voters and for picking a government that is most in accord with those views.

The great philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham 200 years ago was very much a thin about democracy, and the reason he thought democracy was valuable is because it is the best possible tool—perhaps the only tool—for keeping a check on those with powers. If you assume that all of us aim for our own happiness, and that some of us are more altruistic than others, you still face the problem that those with power will always say that they’re looking out for the rest of us. But what will be their incentive for actually doing so? In a dictatorship or aristocracy or even a theocracy it’s hard to point to what those genuine incentives are. Do you simply cross your fingers and hope for a particularly altruistic leader able to withstand the temptations of always having his own way?

But a democracy understood as a majority-rules, “we all count the same and get an equal vote” jurisdiction, goes a long way towards aligning the interests of those in power with the interests of the rest of us. Think of it in sticks-and-carrots terms. You motivate those with power to look out for the wider interests by the very fact that they want to get re-elected. And to do so they need lots of votes, like yours. They have to defer to all of us as to what is best or right if they want the perks of office.

Sure, they don’t need all the votes. They don’t need to look out for everyone. But no system can deliver that. Bentham (in true Churchillian fashion) thought that democracy was the least-bad option going. Nothing else could ever do a better job of aligning the interests of rulers and the rest of us, though the alignment is far from perfect.

So in that sense it’s an idiotic criticism to say, “Politician X only wants to get re-elected.” We want politicians to want to be re-elected. That’s what makes them listen to us. (Think about our two rural socialist independents at this point and you immediately grasp the problems with politicians who no longer care about being re-elected.)

In Benthamite terms, then, democracy is the least-bad way of choosing our rulers because it does more than any other option to give those rulers an incentive to care about, and to implement, policies that most of us want. Sure, it assumes that each of us knows better than anyone else what each of us wants and what will make each of us happy—so it’s not at all paternalistic and based on “we know better than you dumb hicks what’s good for you” premises. But then Bentham thought paternalistic claims were almost always ill-founded and untrue.

Throw in how a democracy and a democracy alone allows you easily to throw the bums out (think of Queensland a few weeks ago) and you have a strong basis for defending a thin account of democracy. 

And on that thin account we surely want to hear from everyone, not just the few who are motivated to vote. If your goal is to deliver governments that look out for the general welfare as much as possible, not just the wishes of some elite or aristocratic or motivated-to-vote few, then compulsory voting seems to be a very good idea indeed.

Yes, it may well run afoul of abstract notions of “liberty” or “freedom” or “rights-respectingness”, at least if you insist that these notions can pre-exist government and do not require positive, enforceable laws to be of value. But that is a price worth paying given the minuscule infringement it makes on those abstract notions and given also the many good consequences that flow from our elected politicians actually knowing, and indeed having to take account of, the views of the extra one-fifth or two-fifths of voters that can be quietly ignored in the USA or UK or Canada.

Some readers might instinctively think that compulsory voting would favour left-of-centre political parties, and indeed that may be why it was initially introduced. But the evidence does not obviously support that conclusion. And if you believe that so-called battlers or Reagan Republicans are less likely to vote than others in a voluntary system, then a compulsory voting system may well do more to curtail the power of the lawyers’ or chardonnay-sipping wing of the Labor Party (as opposed to the more old-fashioned aspirational wing of the party) than a voluntary system.

But in terms of a principled argument, which party will benefit is of course neither here nor there. And on the level of principle, where you weight the costs and benefits of compulsory versus voluntary, I now strongly think that the far greater voter input of compulsory systems clearly outweighs vague talk of infringed liberties and rights that might follow from the small levels of compulsion involved in compulsory voting.

I concede that on fatter understandings of democracy, where you build in all sorts of outcome-based requirements before a system can get the tick of being called “democratic”, that there is more scope to argue for voluntary voting. But such understandings are just not as compelling or attractive as thinner understandings.

In fact, the fatter understandings—if pushed far enough—can take you into a sort of European Union fantasy world where actually having to consult the voters is a distasteful (at best) or unnecessary (at worst) requirement. What really matters, in this alternative fantasy universe that unfortunately seems actually to exist in Western Europe, is that the elites get on with doing what they know is best on a whole range of issues ranging from farm policy to currency union to having a new constitution while ensuring as far as possible that mere voters—all the yous and mes of the world—have as little input as possible.

Now of course voluntary voting in Canada and the USA comes nowhere near that sort of “enervated democracy” or “democracy only on the fattest understanding imaginable” outcome. But they move a few inches closer to it with their voluntary voting systems than we do with our compulsory one.

Ours is better, I now think. In fact it’s noticeably better. And I haven’t even yet had to mention how compulsory voting feeds into our excellent section 128 constitutional amendment provision, which would be less good with voluntary voting. And I’ve omitted to say how political parties in Canada and the USA and the UK spend big chunks of their resources on “getting out the vote”, efforts that are unnecessary here in Australia and that, to some extent at least, take away from parties having scope to get their core messages out. (And this point also ever-so-slightly undermines those pro-voluntary-voting adherents who say that only those who wish to vote should vote because in the real world of Canadian or British or American politics parties regularly target and encourage and nag and help to the voting booth those voters they reckon will support them, whatever their underlying desire to vote might be.)

But I leave further pursuit of those ancillary good consequences for another day. Count me as a convert to mild compulsion when it comes to voting systems. On balance, we’ve got this one right in Australia. 

James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online. 

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