Friday, September 20, 2013

A Brief Word Against Compulsory Voting

'The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.'

                                                          - Winston Churchill

Since 1924, voting at elections in Australia has been compulsory.

All citizens over the age of 18 are required to register with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) and attend a polling place to lodge a ballot paper on election day. It is a firmly entrenched part of Australian life and often cited as one of the key achievements of the free, egalitarian country that we live in. The elections are open to everyone and everyone participates.We take it seriously enough to fine people who opt out.

But the time has come to re-examine this tradition and see if it still serves a  purpose. Or, even if it is actually working against the aims that caused it to be initiated in the first place.

Firstly, a set of figures, supplied by the AEC.

Informal Votes
799 852
Registered But Didn’t Vote
1 124 025
Not Registered to Vote
1 500 000
3 423 877

This shows the number of people who did not participate in the recent Federal election; either by incorrectly marking their ballot, not showing up on polling day or not registering in the first place (this last an estimate based on population data). So a staggering 23%, nearly a quarter of the voting age population, did not cast a valid vote. One person in ten is not even on the electoral roll.

These figures alone seem to shake the foundation of the argument for compulsory voting. Everyone isn't participating. The system that we have in place is not forcing much more of the electorate to vote than may be expected under a voluntary system.

Now consider these figures:

This shows a random assortment of democratic countries from around the world that have a voluntary voting system, with participation rates from the most recent elections held in each. Some of the rates listed show essentially the same outcome as what we currently achieve in Australia. New Zealand, a country with whom we share much in terms of heritage and cultural custom, has almost exactly the same voting rate under voluntary provisions, as Australia does under a compulsory system.

But even a casual glance at the unscientifically assembled figures above indicates that if Australia were to switch to a voluntary system, voting rates would probably decline. Countries with similar political systems to Australia, like the UK and US, show participation rates 15 - 20% below the current rate in Australia. And this forms the basis of much of what is said in defence of our compulsory system; voluntary system = fewer people voting = bad.

But just because fewer people may vote, it doesn't necessarily follow that the system overall is weaker.

Let's say that Australia introduces a voluntary system of voting and the rate of participation declines to 65%, a reduction of 12% and a likely outcome in my estimation. What this means is that out of eight people who vote currently, 7 will continue to do so. And one might grab a snag from a polling place on election day and then carry on somewhere else:

The key question then becomes: Who is this sausage loving iconoclast?

Someone not much interested in politics or policy. Someone who hasn't paid much attention to the debate around the campaign and who doesn't care about the issues. Someone who doesn't mind who wins and thinks it doesn't matter anyway. Maybe a One Nation supporter.

And if the above list is too much of a gross generalisation, then the likely non voter would at least have to be more likely to be one of these things. In any case, I think that this apathetic 1/8th of the population is someone that the other 7/8's can likely struggle on without, when it comes to choosing the country's leadership.

When compulsory voting was introduced in 1924, Member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly Major Matthew Baird commented that compulsory voting:

'... would not make apathetic electors take a more intelligent interest in elections.'

The same argument remains true today. And if you accept the logic of this position, how then can you insist that someone with an apathetic disinterest should be forced to participate in the process? What useful purpose does it serve? They may vote informally, they may submit a donkey vote, they may vote for some random nut who likes kangaroo poo, but their vote will be un-informed and so not worth the time and effort required to force them to submit it. If they want to line up and submit a vote for 'Kodos' then they should be allowed to do this. But if they don't then they shouldn't be forced to.

Which brings us to a consideration of the cost.

The 2010 Federal Election cost a  mind boggling $161 000 000.

A reasonable proportion of this was spent on maintaining electoral rolls and attempting to jockey people who either hadn't registered to vote or who hadn't kept their enrollment up to date, to do these things. To say nothing of the costs of compiling data around who then didn't vote and forwarding this on for enforcement action (hapharzrdly applied, it must be said). While a voluntary system of voting would still entail significant costs, they would be reduced. So is this the best use of $161 million available to us? To ensure that Joe Sausage-Lover can line up and write 'Fuck' on a ballot for an election he couldn't care less about?

I've always felt that the answer to this question, is no.

We should never lose sight of the fact that we enjoy a high standard of living in Australia. Our economy is strong, wages are high and people are free to do much as they please. Among the advantages we enjoy in this country are the open, fair and democratic elections that underpin our Government. The argument that this fine system would be somehow reduced if our voting method became voluntary is false. A voluntary voting system simply allows for one additional choice, a much needed one when faced with deciding between candidates as mediocre as Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd.

And decisions of this nature seems to be a fate compulsory for all of us.

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