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Compulsory voting: Democracy at work

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 8 December 2004

I spent polling day in this year's US presidential election in Seattle and I observed one gargantuan difference between elections in Australia, and those of the US - compulsory voting. Compulsory voting forces people to engage with their democracy - and having observed the alternative, where billions of dollars are spent in trying to get people out to vote and where the dispossessed and marginalised vote in less numbers than the wealthy, Australia should maintain its existing laws.

Since 1924, Australians have had to turn up at a polling place on Election Day and have their names recorded against the electoral roll. More than 95 per cent of us pick up their ballot papers and vote in the election, whether it is for a state or national election. If you don't turn up to vote in state or national elections in this country, you are charged with breaching the electoral laws and face a fine or even imprisonment if you are a persistent offender.

The impact of compulsory voting on the dynamics of a national election is striking. The billions of dollars spent in time and effort trying to ensure that people actually register to vote and then fill in a ballot paper just doesn't happen in Australia. Political parties focus their efforts on promoting their leader and his or her party's policies.


And in the 48 hours before the dawn of polling day there is none of the exhausting whistle-stop touring across the country trying to encourage people to get out and vote that Senator John Kerry and President Bush engaged in this year.

But when Australia voted on October 9 this year to re-elect Prime Minister John Howard, there was an eerie quiet as leaders of the political parties began to put their feet up at the end of a gruelling four-week campaign. They knew by this time there was little they could do to persuade voters which way to vote.

Australia is one of twenty countries with compulsory voting; Argentina and Austria are two others in this elite club. While Belgium was the first nation to introduce compulsory voting, in 1893, Australia was the first English-speaking country when the state of Queensland passed legislation in 1914.

Ten years after Queensland's law was passed, Australia's national Parliament followed suit. Intriguingly, the law to make voting compulsory apparently passed through the Parliament in only 15 minutes. Where voter turnout had been below 50 per cent in elections before 1924, that number increased to more than 90 per cent in the 1925 election and has been 95 per cent to 98 per cent ever since.

Like New Zealand, Australia in the 1890s and early years of the 20th century was a world leader in democratic reforms. New Zealand and the state of South Australia were two of the first democracies in the world to allow women the right to vote, for example.

Early Australian governments believed that compulsory voting was, according to a 2001 research paper from the Australian Parliamentary Library (APL), "as much a part of democracy as compulsory education".


The beauty of compulsory voting is that it, as the APL paper notes, "plays a crucial role in reducing the social bias in turnout. In voluntary systems it is the poor and the marginalised who are the non-voters".

This point is graphically reinforced in a 2000 paper by University of California - Irvine researchers Katherine Tate and Kim De Fonzo. Tate and De Fonzo surveyed the research carried out in the US on voter turnout. All the research points in one direction - that socio-economic status counts. Education and money equals a much greater likelihood of political participation.

And as Adelaide University’s Lisa Hill, who has researched and written extensively on this topic notes, “By ensuring that voting participation is not confined to the more prosperous members of society, compulsory voting serves to protect such important democratic values as representativeness, legitimacy, accountability, political equality and minimisation of elite power”.

No doubt this fact does not concern those on the conservative side of politics in this country who support voluntary voting.

Participating in democracy should not be optional. Even if you despise politicians and the political process, you have to turn out a couple of times every three or four years to vote for your state or national government. It forces even the most cynical individual to at least cast a fleeting glance at the political process and that is a desirable outcome. An outcome we should cherish.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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