Maree (ms_maree) wrote in ontd_political,

Vote - or else?

And for the record, I absolutely support compulsory voting (which makes me part of the 70 percent of Australians who do). I know the arguments for and against it, but simply put, Politicians simply can't afford to overlook any electorate or locality because every adult is a potential voter so everyone is represented. I've mostly come across criticism of this from Americans, very rarely from other Australians. I think that might be a matter of cultural difference, after all, every Australian is taught and brought up to vote, and I doubt many Australians think there is anything unusual with this.

And I do like compulsory voting here, even if Julie Bishop who wrote this column isn't that keen.

What does Australia have in common with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cyprus, Ecuador, Fiji and Greece? How about Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nauru, Peru, Singapore, Turkey and Uruguay?

According to the Australian Electoral Commission, these are the nations that, along with Australia, have compulsory voting in national parliamentary elections and enforce it through fines, sanctions and other penalties.

In a recent briefing with an ambassador newly posted to Australia, I was asked why Australia was out of step with most major democracies in enforcing compulsory voting. A lively debate ensued as I listed the arguments in favour of compulsory voting and why I thought there was strong public support for it.

But my heart wasn’t in it, as the arguments that support voluntary voting are aligned with my more libertarian views on the exercise of civil rights and the freedoms associated with democracy. If one has the right to vote, it should follow that there is a corresponding right not to vote.

Some argue that democracy confers rights and responsibilities, and if you have the right to vote, then it is your responsibility to do so. That may be so, and we also have a right to free speech but that doesn’t mean we are compelled to exercise that right.

In my view voting doesn’t equate with other intrinsic obligations. It doesn’t seem fair to force people to vote for candidates they don’t know or care about or want to support.

Australia’s first nine federal elections were held under voluntary voting, with compulsory voting first enforced in 1925. Since then, Australians have become used to compulsory voting.

Turnout has never been below 90 per cent and while the number of informal votes can vary, there is little evidence as to what extent this represents acts of error, apathy or protest.

Numerous surveys and polls reveal strong public support, with generally more than 70 per cent in favour of compulsory voting. That is not so surprising given that Australia has had no other system for the past 85 years.

Nevertheless, the parliamentary joint standing committee on electoral matters, which holds an inquiry after every election, recommended in 1996 that voluntary voting be re-introduced. The issue has been raised in the wake of every election since then, although there has been relatively little public debate.

The arguments for and against compulsory voting have been rehearsed in the past. Those in favour of compulsory voting suggest that it more accurately reflects the will of the electorate and gives greater legitimacy to the elected government as there is a consistently high voter turnout. Supporters liken it to other civic duties, such as paying taxes and jury duty, pointing out that voting is far less onerous than other compulsory responsibilities.

It is often argued that compulsory voting means parties and candidates can focus their campaigns on issues and policies rather than expending resources and effort encouraging voters to come out on election day and cast a vote.

Those against compulsory voting argue that it is inconsistent with the freedoms associated with democracy. It is argued that political parties and candidates take the public for granted and rely on laws of compulsion and enforcement to get voters to the ballot box, rather than enticing them through attractive policies.

Critics say compulsory voting more strongly defines safe and marginal seats and allows the major parties to take for granted a certain percentage of the vote. It also makes it easier for political parties to ''pork barrel'' specific electorates at the expense of other electorates.

While the theoretical arguments focus on rights and freedoms versus obligations and responsibilities, the key practical issue at the heart of the debate is voter turnout. It is safe to assume that Australia will retain compulsory voting for the foreseeable future, but we must be prepared to challenge the workings of our democracy to ensure it remains robust and relevant to the broader public.

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