Nawid Zaher, Editorial Researcher, Government Gazette
Upon turning 18 and being eligible to vote in my first federal election, I was given a ballot paper with a number of voting options. The one choice that I was not given was whether or not I could elect to attend a polling booth and actually vote. In Australia, compulsory voting has been integrated into politics for the best part of a century. The 1925 election between Stanley Bruce and Matthew Charlton marked the first Australian election with compulsory voting and the federal election between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott in 2010 marked my first eligible election as well as 85 years of compulsory voting in the country. This paper briefly highlights key statistics in relation to compulsory voting before discussing the impacts and benefits of participating in compulsory voting as well as compulsory voting in other countries.
The major driving force behind compulsory voting at federal elections appears to have been a decline in voter turnout. Evans (2006, p. 5) states the 1919 election recorded a turnout in excess of 71% before a major drop to less than 60% at the 1922 election. The potential of this trend was significant and ultimately triggered change by way of a private bill to amend the ‘Electorate Act’. Needless to say, the impact was immediate as the next federal election in 1925 recorded voter turnout in excess of 91%. The next (almost) century of federal elections has seen voter turnout remain at similar levels, if not greater. On a qualitative level, ‘compulsory voting is claimed to encourage policies which collectively address the full spectrum of elector values, because all voters have to be appealed to by government and opposition parties in order to win, and maintain, a majority in Parliament’ (Evans 2006, p. 10). On a quantitative level, we can, by way of an example, compare Australia with the UK for some contrasting results. In the UK elections of May 2005, turnout varied from 74.6% in Dorset West to 41.5% in Liverpool Riverside. By contrast, the turnout of all but 2 electorates in the Australian elections in October 2004 was over 90%. The exceptions were Kalgoorlie with 83.53% and Lingiari with 77.71%, both covering remote areas with transient populations (Evans 2006, p. 11). The UK does not have compulsory voting and the implications of this are obvious against the statistics of Australia.
To summarise these statistics, it is obvious that voter turnout was declining, and implementing compulsory voting not only turned this around but has also kept it at levels above 90%. However, as a stand alone figure, this percentage offers little. Further assessment must be considered to determine the impact of such policy and the benefits compulsory voting attracts.
Compulsory voting impacts on every eligible voter on the day of the election as per the legislation. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, under section 245(1) states ‘it shall be the duty of every elector to vote at each election’. In reality, this means attending a polling booth on the indicated Saturday of ‘election day’ and casting your vote. The benefit of this mechanism of public policy is it keeps the electorate engaged, even if it is momentarily whilst casting their vote.
A discussion paper administered by the Whitlam Institute in conjunction with the University of Western Sydney suggests, ‘there is a growing disconnection between formalised Politics and everyday politics’. This trend highlights how the areas of overlap between everyday life and formal Politics are becoming increasingly smaller, indicating that formal Political structures are becoming more remote in our everyday lives (Arvantikis & Marren 2009, p. 10). This growing gap between politics and society is not an ideal scenario and indicative of a changing socio-political landscape. In resolving these issues, it can be said that students at the academic level can have their curriculum manipulated to learn more about politics and this may increasingly trigger a higher level of engagement. However, this is a temporary fix as formal academia eventually ceases and the opportunity to learn about the importance of public policy and politics consequently diminishes. Interestingly, it is at this age where it is common for high school to finish and the opportunity to actually impact on politics begins. This is because the age of 18 often marks the age to be eligible to vote. However, from this age, there are few social instruments or pieces of legislation that direct people to take an interest in politics.
Compulsory voting is thus the fundamental policy instrument that ensures a reasonable level of political engagement between parliament and members of the electorate. Such policy ensures that every now and then, as members of an electorate, we are aware of our political landscape. This is important because politicians create our public, fiscal and social policies amongst other major areas of policy that substantially impact on our lives. Compulsory voting validates this desired level of engagement and offers the ability to track public sentiment on an overall basis.
Compulsory voting can also eliminate inequality and potential social injustices by way of abuses of political power. ‘Those who fail to vote in voluntary voting nations are typically those groups already experiencing one or more forms of deprivation, namely, the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, indigenous peoples, the isolated, new citizens and the young’ (Hill, 2011). This transfers greater voting power to the well-off and causes policies to be geared disproportionately to the interests of voters (Hill, 2011). Compulsory voting is critical in avoiding any opportunity for such an environment to exist. It instigates discussion and common ground amongst members of the electorate where otherwise there would be none, particularly in low socio-economic areas.
Compulsory voting can also be viewed as a civic duty comparable to other duties citizens perform, such as taxation, compulsory education and jury duty (Evans 2006, p. 12). In this sense, it is almost odd that compulsory voting is not widely accepted to the degree taxation and jury duty is and rather it is the topic of constant debate. For those living in nations with compulsory voting, it is in fact a patriotic day where every member of society engages with their representative democracy and affects their political landscape.
Compulsory voting has obviously had a tremendous and immediate impact on the Australian political landscape. It is important to also consider the impact compulsory voting has had on the other countries that currently have such a policy in existence. According to the CIA World Factbook (2013), the following 10 countries not only have compulsory voting, but enforce it too:
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
There are several other countries which have compulsory voting laws in place, but in which it is not actually enforced in practice.
The following paragraphs will briefly discuss compulsory voting in regards to Brazil to offer a contrast to Australia.
The compulsory voting legislation is taken seriously in Brazil. ‘Election dates are national holidays to facilitate compliance with the law’ (Power & Roberts 1995, p. 805) and similarly to Australia, those who are required by law to vote and don’t, face a punitive fine. Similarly again, both countries permit non-voters to provide a reasonable reason for not voting. However, if they do not do this and do not pay the fine, they become subject to a series of sanctions. Listed below from a case study by Leticia Calderon-Chelius (2007) for IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) are the sanctions for failing to vote in Brazil:
- They cannot apply for any public position or function.
- They cannot receive any remuneration or salary from a public post.
- There are restrictions on the types of loan they can obtain from federal or local government sources, or from any credit institution administered totally or partially by the government.
- There are restrictions on their obtaining a passport or identity card.
- There are restrictions on their renewing their teaching licences in public educational institutions or those that are controlled by the government.
Interestingly, measures for not voting are much broader in Brazil than in Australia. However, the impact of compulsory voting in relation to voter turn out is greater in Australia than in Brazil. Voter turn out in the 2010 Brazil election was at 82% (IDEA, 2013) in comparison to the 2010 Australian election which was 93% (AEC, 2013). It is worth mentioning that the population of Brazil, at 198 million, is significantly greater than Australia’s mere 23 million. Nevertheless, both countries employ compulsory voting and enforce it for great results in regards to high voter turnout levels.
Broadly speaking, most countries on the list above experience voter turnout levels similar to Australia; according to statistics from IDEA, with the obvious exception of DRC.
International comparisons such as Brazil offer us the chance to look at compulsory voting from the perspective of another country and this can aid the electoral evaluation process. Overall, the overwhelming statistic is that all countries that have enacted compulsory voting record high voter turnout levels roughly between the 80% and 95% figure. These levels of voter turnout are much higher than those for nations with voluntary voting and growing. This trend should be worrisome for parliaments of voluntary voting nations because it reflects a growing disconnect between politics and the public. This level of engagement cannot be healthy for representative democracies with voluntary voting. Perhaps compulsory voting could instigate a new era of engagement between politics and the electorate for their nations.
On a personal level, compulsory voting does not unduly worry me. Furthermore, an election study from a little over 15 years ago suggests it doesn’t faze most Australians either. The study posed the question to, ‘would you have voted in the election if voting had not been compulsory?’ Almost 70% of respondents said they ‘definitely would have’, with a further 18% adding to the category of ‘probably would have voted’ (Mackerras & McAllister 1999, p. 227). This is an enormous percentage of respondents that hardly appear to be pushing for electoral reform to dismiss compulsory voting. At the end of the day, it is one day every two to three years where you are required to enter a polling booth and cast your vote. Giving up a few minutes of your time every couple of years is not a significant issue and may produce greater levels of political engagement. However I can appreciate, my perspective is aided by fact that this policy of compulsory voting is the only one I have ever been exposed to. Irrespective, in a country such as Australia, where compulsory voting has been around for such a long period time, that the idea of voluntary voting will continue to remain foreign, unknown and unpopular.