Who’s right about compulsory voting?

By January 5, 2013History, Politics, Society

The reaction of the Labor Party to the notion that Queenslanders might have an opinion about whether or not citizens should be compelled to vote was entirely predictable. Labor is against it. The matter came up for me last year, and I wrote about it then. What is new is the fact that a discussion paper about electoral reform has included compulsory voting as something which people might think about. The paper itself makes no recommendation, and in fact the short section on compulsory voting comes at the end of what is a thoughtful and accessible paper. Queensland introduced compulsory voting in 1915, the C0mmonwealth following suit in 1924.

‘Is there anything in this?’ you ask. My guess is that nothing will happen. The fulminations by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer amount to an unconsidered reflex: if you see a target, hit it. The issue is a fundamental one about liberty and responsibility, and in my opinion there is no ‘correct’ position. For the political parties there is a perfectly good reason for keeping compulsory voting: it removes one of the great uncertainties about electoral outcomes — the turnout.

We know that about 90 per cent of the electorate will vote at an Australian State or Federal election — that is, 90 per cent of the apparent enrolment. Although electoral offices throughout our country take enrolment seriously, and do their best to make sure that the rolls are accurate, the rolls are only an approximation. But 90 per cent is the vast majority. In our political culture voting is now a habit, and that relieves the political parties of the awful burden of ‘getting the vote out’, which in other countries is the main reason political parties have organisations, and one of the principal costs in campaigning.

You can get a feeling for the difference through looking at the USA, where turnout in presidential elections has been around 57 per cent on the past two occasions, and at the UK where it was 65 per cent the last time, has been as low as 59 per cent, but was as high as 83 per cent in the early 1950s. Most countries eschew compulsion; Belgium and Singapore are like Australia.

If it is not in the interest of any political party to go back to voluntary voting, why has the Queensland government released a discussion paper that invites such a consequence? We are back to the issue of principle. From the libertarian perspective, the citizen created the state; it was not the other way round. Therefore the citizen has every right to opt out of voting if he or she is so minded. It doesn’t really matter what the reasons for such action are: the citizen’s freedom is paramount.

This is not at all a silly position, but neither is its opposite, which is that the right to vote carries with it the responsibility to vote. As I wrote in an early post, I am not much of a supporter of the need for an Australian Bill of Rights, being conscious of the absence of any corresponding Bill of Responsibilities. And the voting question is a good example. If it is the case, in theory at least, that the citizen came first, and created the state, and the management of the state is controlled by the outcome of elections, then it seems to me that the citizen has a responsibility to care for the state and its elections, too. She does this by holding governments to account, and voting. There are anarchists who think we shouldn’t have a state at all, and the one I knew never voted and, I think, had avoided enrolment somehow. To the voluntarists, I point out that the responsible citizen who thinks that the candidates are all awful does have an option: she casts a blank ballot, and thereby discharges her obligations and preserves her sense of fitness. I think our system is a good one, and while I wouldn’t export it to another country, I think it is worth preserving for us.

Would it make much difference if we went back to voluntary voting? I wonder. For the first few years the old habits would keep things much as they are now, then we would see a decline in the proportion voting. I fancy that social media and developing technologies of communication would change the ways in which the political parties approach the task of getting the vote out, and ‘crowd-sourcing’ will change the way funds are garnered, as has been shown by President Obama.

But I’m not interested in finding out, and I don’t expect that the Queensland Government will, in the end, change the status quo. By the way, there has been no comment about compulsory enrolment, and it does not appear in the discussion paper as a matter to be discussed. I’m in favour of compulsory enrolment, even more strongly! It is, in practice, the list of Australian citizens.



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