How Compulsory Voting Subverts Democracy

With unwavering persistence and obstinacy, in bold felt-tip-pen letters—because I feel a pencil doesn’t carry sufficient gravitas—I scrawl across my ballot papers at federal and state elections: “In a true democracy voting is not compulsory.” Beneath that I write my name, address and phone number.

It was a few years before I discovered why no one from the electoral office bothered to contact me: according to experts like the former Labor Party leader Kim Beazley, it’s permissible to turn up at a polling booth and not vote. The law is intended to uphold compulsory attendance at a polling booth rather than compulsory voting. Former Liberal Senator Chris Puplick claimed that electors “are not compelled to fill in that ballot paper, and have an absolute right not to vote by placing a blank or spoiled ballot in the ballot box”.

In short, I was led to believe that I had been doing nothing wrong. Yet, almost immediately, it transpired all was not lost.

According to Tim Evans, when he was Director of Elections Systems and Policy at the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), there is a mandatory obligation on the part of electors to cast a valid vote. In court cases going back over many decades, judges have determined that casting invalid votes, not marking ballot papers or not placing them in the ballot box are all violations of the Electoral Act.

It seems I should have been contacted by someone. That I was, after all, showing commendable courage by refusing to cast a vote, and that I am, therefore, higher up the moral ladder than those who simply turn up and deface their voting card.

Martyrdom again beckons. 

Democracy is an achievement that has come about through determination, hard work, struggle, even bloodshed. On these grounds alone, it deserves to be honoured. But democracy can only be honoured if we appreciate the gift we’re fortunate enough to possess in the first place. Sadly, a considerable number of people do not appreciate it, and have never given the matter a moment’s thought. I’d argue that the massive indifference towards politics that now pervades the general populace will only be overcome by removing the compulsion to vote. Politicians would then be forced to argue their cases with more conviction, and to educate their constituents about the historical struggle that was necessary to achieve what most of us now take for granted.

People have to be persuaded of the importance of voting to the democratic process. Yet compelling people to do so subverts our democratic rights. Democracy is about freedom; it is the antithesis of compulsion. Compulsory voting raises a question we shouldn’t even be asking: whether voting is a civil right or a civic duty.

The right not to vote in an election is as fundamental as the right to vote. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights refer to people’s rights to “freely chosen representatives”. This right is something we each possess and can each choose to use, but it should never become a dictate.

Those who argue that voting is a duty, and therefore a legal obligation, readily agree we’re free to vote, but then declare it’s a freedom we’re compelled to exercise. They have no time for freedom of choice. Greg Sheridan says: 

It is a central conservative insight that democracy confers both rights and responsibilities. Attending a polling booth on Election Day is the mildest possible responsibility.  

Christopher Bayliss, in his submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, said: 

All our voting system requires is for a voter to attend a polling booth and mark some papers as they wish, approximately once every three years. This does not seem to be an insurmountable burden to be part of a democracy. 

The logic that backs such statements on behalf of the pro-compulsory-voting lobby is frequently bolstered by linking the event to sitting on a jury, paying taxes or wearing seatbelts—a civilised society expects its citizens to perform such duties. I’ll consider these three points in more detail because they’re brought up with mind-numbing frequency.

There’s an understandable desire to avoid jury service because it’s both time-consuming and costly to most people. Therefore, it has to be made compulsory, because otherwise only a few of us would volunteer, despite the fact that most of us would wish to be judged by a jury if we were unfortunate enough to find ourselves standing in the dock one day.

Although everyone will agree that taxes are necessary to maintain the services we all deem essential to the smooth running of society, none of us is likely to be sufficiently altruistic to volunteer to pay them. There certainly wouldn’t be sufficient volunteers to guarantee the funding of the many societal structures we now all take for granted. So taxes, also, must be made compulsory.

As for seatbelts, if people were not legally obliged to wear them it would cost society several millions of dollars to either hospitalise or bury victims after the majority of car accidents. The alternative, to leave victims at the side of the freeway like roadkill, is scarcely an appropriate societal response.

Jury service, the paying of taxes and the wearing of seatbelts all benefit society, whereas compulsory voting doesn’t benefit anyone (except perhaps politicians).

And this brings us to what is possibly the most important question concerning this issue: are countries with compulsory voting more democratic than those without it?

An organisation by the name of the Freedom of Light claims that “the practical reality is that compulsory voting produces a better indication of the opinion of the people than voluntary voting”. The Sun-Herald sees it from a similar perspective: compulsory voting “provides a stimulus for voters to apprise themselves of the issues”, in comparison to voluntary voting which “favours the better educated and the better off”, and is “elitist and thereby anti-democratic”.

Such logic is hard to follow. Certainly, the bludgeon of compulsion is an excellent way of overcoming indifference, but to claim that forcing people to attend at polling stations overcomes voter apathy and drags in those on the periphery of society is an argument that doesn’t stand up to even distant scrutiny.

It’s certainly true that in countries where voting is voluntary, like the USA and UK, voter apathy is highest among the poor and uneducated. It’s also hard to dispute the fact that, because these people—in Western countries at least—do not vote, they’re ignored, and because they’re ignored, they don’t bother to vote. But the argument falls down with the claim that, by forcing these people to vote, politicians will be compelled to pay attention to them, and take steps to improve their situation. It’s much more likely politicians will fight for the welfare of the poor and uneducated if they have to go out and seek their vote.

There’s also the small matter of voter ignorance. This is particularly noteworthy amongst the less-well-educated in Western societies, and it’s almost impossible to ignore when stating the case either for or against compulsory voting.

In 1994 ANOP conducted an Australia-wide survey to measure people’s understanding of government. This is just one result from that survey: only 40 per cent could name the two federal houses of parliament. With the best will in the world, I do not believe that forcing the remaining 60 per cent to attend a polling booth will make them any less ignorant of their system of government. Nor are their votes necessarily worth obtaining. Rather, I’d be inclined to rank the worth of the votes of the ignorant alongside those of the apathetic and those who are hostile to compulsory voting. This doesn’t mean I’m advocating some form of elitism. Although the essence of a democracy is to be all-inclusive, it doesn’t follow that forcing the ignorant, apathetic or hostile to the polling booth is therefore desirable.

The AEC claims “the link between compulsory voting and informal voting is difficult to prove”, but admits that informal voting and “donkey voting” are “particularly apparent under compulsory voting”. Since Australia introduced the secret ballot to the world in 1856, it’s been almost impossible to know why voters mark their ballot papers in a certain way, but with informal and donkey voting accounting for just 5 per cent of the votes in federal elections, it’s hard to view them as threat to democracy.

Some suggest that providing an abstention box on the ballot paper is the solution to this problem. Such a box is permitted in elections in Italy—scarcely a country known for its orderly and sane system of government. When Geoff Hoon, a Labour MP on the Board of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s think-tank, suggested compulsory voting should be introduced in the UK, he claimed a box for “None of the above” was “absolutely vital”. But this still means coercing people to do something they don’t necessarily want to do. It’s like compelling someone to stand on a soapbox at a speakers’ corner then telling them they don’t have to exercise their right to freedom of speech. And for those for whom voting has no meaning, forcing them to attend a polling booth just to say “I was here” is even more meaningless.

Leftist professor Verity Burgmann of the University of Melbourne questions whether it’s democratic to force people to cast their vote, and claims that the right not to vote “is an important freedom denied Australians”. And former Liberal Senator Warwick Parer expressed his opinion that compulsion represents a failure of democracy. Others even claim that compulsory voting puts Australia in the same category as South American dictatorships. It’s undoubtedly true that the three most prominent (as in powerful and influential) countries with compulsory voting are also amongst the most over-regulated and paternalistic: Singapore, Switzerland and Australia.

Many hold that compulsion trivialises the voting system because it doesn’t compel the political parties to sell their policies effectively. If voting was non-mandatory, Australian politicians would be obliged to make voting more attractive and interesting. The pollster Rod Cameron believes there would be a higher level of political debate, “because you could actually talk policy”. And there would be an incentive for parties to engage with those they usually ignore—those who aren’t interested in politics, and those in safe electorates. In the 2010 federal election, the media frequently commented on the fact that politicians made an inordinate number of visits to such marginal seats as Bennelong, McEwen, Herbert and Hasluck, throwing extravagant promises around on behalf of their parties as they did so, while virtually ignoring their parties’ safe seats.

Those who believe countries with compulsory voting are more democratic argue that it legitimises democracy, that the election results in countries like the USA, where voting isn’t compulsory and voter turnout is low, do not accurately reflect the country’s political opinion. But I believe that not having an opinion is an opinion, that being indifferent to the outcome of an election and disliking all of the options put before one are both opinions. If people don’t turn out to vote, they’re definitely stating their opinions, many of which are both strongly held and well thought through.

It’s a truism that one cannot force an opinion from a person. If someone doesn’t have one (“I don’t care if Rudd or Abbott is Prime Minister”), there should be no attempt to extract one forcibly.

Perhaps the clinching argument as to whether or not compulsory voting is more democratic is that, according to the experts, coercing everyone to the polling booth in fact makes little or no difference to the final outcome. The experts (academics, pollsters and civil servants) have all calculated that in the last four Australian federal elections the results would have been the same even had the voting been voluntary. 

Not surprisingly, the holy grail of the pro-compulsory voting lobby is high turnout. Long queues outside polling booths equal a healthy democracy. If that point of view is taken, then Australia is a very healthy democracy indeed, with one of the most consistently high voter turnouts anywhere in the world—an average of 94.5 per cent since 1946. Before the introduction of compulsory voting that figure was around 60 per cent.

The British scholar Pippa Norris, in Electoral Engineering, analysed the turnout of registered voters in older democracies during the 1990s and found that those with compulsory voting had a turnout about 14 per cent higher than those where voting was voluntary.

In the UK, voting in the twenty-first century has hovered around the 60 per cent mark. In 2010 it was 65 per cent. Their 2005 general election produced a turnout of 61 per cent, when Labour was returned with 55 per cent of the seats on 35 per cent of that 61 per cent turnout, a majority built on a mere 21 per cent of the total possible vote. The same pattern of declining turnout is evident in both Canada and the USA.

Although falling voting figures around the world may be a worry, compelling people to vote is not the answer. Too many people feel they’re powerless in the face of both the political system and the huge, undemocratic power of the modern corporation. They also feel that one politician is little different from another, and that none of them is going to deal in a meaningful way with any of the big issues. So it takes a politician who can galvanise the public to get them voting. In the 2008 US Presidential election, people sensed a new political star in Obama, someone who would make a difference, and voter turnout was the highest for forty years.

I believe Australians have just one true moral obligation, and that is to preserve and if necessary fight for their right to vote. Being bullied into casting a vote every three years for some small-minded, self-serving minnow and his or her petty personal policies is not a part of that obligation.

Numbers are unimportant. Quality rather than quantity should be the focus of a healthy democracy. Voting should be carried out by those who care, by those who want to vote. It isn’t too hard to argue that those who want to vote deserve to be heard more than those who do not. Is it truly worth listening to someone who has nothing to say or who doesn’t want to say anything?

British Labour MP Peter Hain claimed: “In Australia and other countries, the civic duty to vote reconnects those who are distanced from the democratic and political process, producing consistently high turnouts without any complaints whatsoever about infringing individual liberty.” It’s a little far-fetched to claim that compulsion reconnects people to the democratic process. As for that last phrase, it’s little more than wishful thinking: compulsory voting does infringe our liberty. It’s just that most people are too apathetic to complain.

What calamity would befall Australia if voting became voluntary? If we look at the Netherlands, where voting was compulsory between 1917 and 1971 and then became voluntary, the average turnout fell from 94.7 per cent to 81.4 per cent. If Australia was to embrace a non-mandatory voting system and a similar drop was to occur here, it would amount to about 1.5 million fewer votes during a national election. Disaster? I don’t think so. The end of democracy and civilisation Down Under? Surely not. 

The first place in the British Empire to introduce compulsory voting was Queensland in 1915. Queenslanders then became so used to voting in state elections that the state’s turnout in the still-voluntary federal elections increased to above the national average. These impressive voting figures were eyed covetously by those in the south, and moved Senator Herbert Payne of Tasmania to introduce a private member’s bill. Compulsory voting in federal elections became law in 1924.

Australia is now one of around twenty nations which require their citizens to vote in elections. Five are in Europe (the relatively minor countries of Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg), ten in Central and South America, one in Africa, two in Asia and two in Oceania. Nevertheless, Australia remains the only major advanced industrialised democracy where voting is compulsory.

I’m well aware that my petty act of defiance is primarily against the fact I am forced to vote—“the blight of compulsion” as the then Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Nick Minchin, once put it. I justify this childish behaviour by arguing that it is they who are treating me like a child, yet feel obliged to bolster my case with weightier, more rational arguments: compulsory voting infringes our freedom, is a right rather than a duty, doesn’t make a country more democratic, debases the act of voting, and gives equal validity to the views of the totally uninformed and those who know exactly what they want and why.

The late Australian Senator Don Chipp thought non-voters were morons, and believed that compulsory voting was necessary in order to herd said morons to the polling booth. His comment is interesting because, as we all know, those of “unsound mind” are disqualified from voting. It may therefore be worth my while to put forward such a defence in a court of law. “I am recognised by a famous politician as being a moron, therefore I must be of unsound mind, therefore I shouldn’t vote.”

I understand why we’re obliged to perform jury duty, pay taxes and wear seatbelts, but so far as I can tell, the only reason we’re obliged to vote is because those in power many decades ago saw themselves—as do many today—as enlightened despots, as knowing, in some self-perceived wise and well-meaning way, what is good for us, “the people”. It stinks of paternalism. I do not like being told what to do. Remove the compulsion and I will happily vote. In the UK I voted at every national election for over twenty years (until emigrating to Australia in 1990).

In the meantime, I persuade myself that not voting does make a statement. My non-vote counts. It’s a “vote” that says, “I protest against compulsion.” Of course it’s also clear to me that if I don’t vote—now when it’s mandatory, or tomorrow should it ever become non-mandatory—then I have no right to complain about the government we end up with. I must accept the consequences of not voting, because what I’m basically saying is, I have no desire to express an opinion on the running of this country. I confess, in moments of weakness, that I do sometimes hope the powers-that-be will make voting optional—and soon. Then I can get back to casting my vote and complaining vehemently about our federal and state governments. 

Things are unlikely to change. A large number of Australians either support or are indifferent to the issue of compulsory voting. Others ask why we should change something that’s been part of Australian life for the best part of a hundred years. People like me claim that the increase in unmarked ballot papers in the modern era indicates voters’ disapproval of compulsion. Unfortunately, Australian Electoral Commission studies show that defective numbering more than anything else is the major cause of informals. I suspect, however, that most of those who don’t cast an effective vote are as apathetic about how their country is run as they are about the rights or wrongs of compulsory voting.

Major alterations to national voting systems are rarely made. Since the passage of the Commonwealth Electoral Act in 1902, there have been only three significant changes: from first-past-the-post voting to preferential voting in 1918, the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924, and the introduction of proportional representation for Senate elections in 1948.

We also have to take into account the fact that politicians will only ever change something if it’s to their own advantage to do so. Let’s not talk altruism here. Senator Minchin stated back in 1996: “Electoral law is the one area in which political self-interest is almost guaranteed to override principle.”

The prevailing wisdom has always been that conservative parties are most favoured by low voter turnout—in Australia, the Liberal Party would fare better than Labor. But compulsory voting has been in place for so long now it would be unwise for any party to guess how, or if, it would be affected by its abolition. John Howard stated when he was Prime Minister that he’d like to see the introduction of voluntary voting, but noted that his view was in the minority amongst Liberals: 

It is not something that I want to have an argument about … I don’t see any compelling need, on the grounds of pragmatism and balance, to alter the voting system.

So nothing happened.

Most politicians find it difficult to believe there could be people out there who not only take no interest in government, but are also convinced there are no politicians worth taking an interest in.

I shall end with two quotations. The late editor of Quadrant Paddy McGuinness once wrote: 

Just as the right to free speech entails the right to silence, so the right to vote must imply the right to abstain.

And in 2006 David Cameron, then just the Conservative Party leader, said:

Voting, to me, is a right, and not voting should never be a crime. The state is our servant and not our master, and to me compulsory voting ranks alongside compulsory identity cards.

So I intend to continue my childish protest in the polling station, and I shall continue to hope that the benign dictators in Canberra—none of whom I’ve voted for, of course—will one day come to see the error of their ways.

Peter Barry is the author of two novels, I Hate Martin Amis et al (2011) and We All Fall Down (2012). He has also published many short stories. He lives in Melbourne.

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