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Latham's call to abolish compulsory voting is flawed


Sally Young

The former Labor leader's support for voluntary voting in Australia is a dangerous idea that would only lead to bigger problems.

In Mark Latham’s latest book, The Political Bubble, he calls for Australia to abolish compulsory voting. When promoting the book last week, Mr Latham suggested that Australia adopt voluntary voting because then "parties would have to come up with genuine policies that matter to people to encourage them to go out and vote" and it would "make parties more courageous and genuine". 

But the political science research strongly shows the opposite, with the United States the classic case of a voluntary voting system where the parties are anything but responsive or courageous. They pander to sectional interests because in voluntary voting systems turnout is heavily skewed in favour of the well-off and politicians are keenly aware of their constituency.

The abominable US healthcare system, their expensive university system and their harsh and leaky welfare safety net are all the result of politicians knowing they can pretty safely ignore the needs of all but those who vote. 

No US president has ever been elected by a majority of eligible voters and, in the last US presidential election in 2012, only 54 per cent of the voting age population voted. As in other voluntary systems, people with high incomes, education and occupation dominate voting. 

American politics only makes sense when viewed through this prism of politicians who can disregard the needs of non-voters — including the poor, the working poor and the marginalised — without fear of strong electoral consequences. 

The abominable US healthcare system, their deregulated, expensive university education system and their harsh and leaky welfare safety net that contributes to high crime rates and entrenched poverty are all the result of politicians knowing they can pretty safely ignore the needs of all but those who vote — and who donate. 

Money can end up playing a big role in voluntary voting systems because when there is a large proportion of non-voters, governments are more likely to be influenced by moneyed interests and intense issue activists. The powerful gun lobby in the US is an example of the latter, while defence lobbyists, the pharmaceutical industries and now the tech industries lobby are examples of the former.

In the UK, a higher 61 per cent of the voting age population voted in the 2010 general election. But, as is occurring in other voluntary voting systems, turnout seems to be becoming lower and even more uneven. Emily Keaney and Ben Rogers in A Citizen’s Duty, a report for the British Institute for Public Policy Research, showed that voter turnout in the UK is falling most steeply among low-income earners. 

In an excellent new book, Compulsory Voting: For and Against, Australian academic Lisa Hill debates American Jason Brennan on the merits of compulsory voting. Professor Hill shows how, in voluntary voting systems, during periods of economic crisis, the "worse off people become, the less likely they are to vote" as they focus instead on "getting by". This means incumbent governments get to escape "retribution from those most affected by any mismanagement on their part" — the opposite of what should happen in a democracy where politicians are supposed to be held accountable at the ballot box.

Australia actually has a system of compulsory voter attendance rather than "compulsory voting" because the secret ballot means it is neither desirable nor possible to compel voters to mark the ballot paper. Under our system, 93 per cent of registered voters usually turn out at federal elections in Australia. As a proportion of the voting age population, that is around 82 per cent. Political participation can be defined in many different ways but if you count voting as a crucial means of political participation, Australians are already highly engaged by international standards.

Our turnout is not only high but far more representative. This has meant, historically, that our system has produced a more even distribution of government attention and less income inequality than voluntary voting systems. (A good test of these features will be the future electoral consequences of the Abbott government’s budget — if its most unfair and unpopular measures are indeed passed.)

According to the research, countries with compulsory voting also produce governments that have less corruption and more citizens who feel positive about their democracy. On Mr Latham’s point about engagement, American academic Victoria Shineman found that compulsory voting laws can cause citizens to become more interested in politics and pay greater attention to political news.

This is not to say that we don’t have problems to address. Achieving 82 per cent of the voting age population is very healthy by international standards but it isn’t as universal as the law requires and shows that more needs to be done to encourage young people in particular to register to vote. About a third of those missing from the electoral roll are in the 18 to 24 age group. Internationally — and Australia is no exception — age has become a very significant factor in determining whether an individual will vote or not. 

This is all part of what Mr Latham is rightly concerned about — the increasing disconnection between citizens and formal, parliamentary politics. I agree that current political practice isn’t engaging or inclusive enough and it doesn’t lead to the best public policy outcomes possible. But voluntary voting isn’t the answer. Not only would it fail to solve any of those problems, it would also create new, much bigger problems. 

In principle, compulsory voting seems no more objectionable than "forcing" citizens to pay taxes or perform jury duty. And, in practice, it has proved the only effective way to achieve high turnout and the many good outcomes that come with it. As a result, compulsory voting is one of the best features of Australia’s political system and leads to some of the best rates of political participation in the world. To throw that away on a vain hope of creating more "genuine" politicians would be a terrible mistake.

Sally Young is associate professor of political science at The University of Melbourne and a regular Age columnist. 

30 comments so far

  • "This is all part of what Mr Latham is rightly concerned about….. Not only would it fail to solve any of those problems, it would also create new, much bigger problems." I agree.

    Thanks for an interesting article. I also agree that the "Money can end up playing a big role in voluntary voting systems because when there is a large proportion of non-voters, governments are more likely to be influenced by moneyed interests and intense issue activists." Already we have seen evidence of the current government being "influenced by moneyed interests".

    But Latham is correct when he talks about disengagement. I have been an eligible voter for 51 years (voting rights began at 21 back then). For the first time ever I chose not to vote in September 2013. I looked at Rudd and at Abbott and, for different reasons, wanted neither to PM. Whichever way I voted one of the two would be PM. Along with others I wished a pox on both.

    What we need are other ways of registering our disillusionment with current politics. I am unhappy that a person with 0.51% of the vote becomes a Senator. That a so-called "preferences whisperer" determines the outcome of an election is, in my view, as unacceptable as big money, big mining, big pharma or coal burning power generators determining the outcome. It makes a mockery of people bothering to turn out to vote.

    Date and time
    August 06, 2014, 12:39AM
    • England has retained the archaic elite class system of voting on a working day, which meant workers didn't vote. Also, if you don't vote in an election, what right do you have to criticise anything the govt does or proposes. When you vote in an election, you own that government and genuinely interested in the political outcomes that the elected government makes. How often does one hear 'not voting for that mob again' because they know their vote is powerful.

      moffat beach
      Date and time
      August 06, 2014, 12:56AM
      • In a truly free country you are free not to vote (or register to vote or have anything to do with the political process). It really is as simple as that. Of course low turnout is not desirable but that is not an argument for compulsory voting. Obesity is not desirable, should there be compulsory dieting? The UK is a more free and more democratic country than Australia due to your nation's indefensible electoral policy

        Date and time
        August 06, 2014, 1:25AM
        • Then PM, Bob Hawke, famously stated back in the 1980s (if memory serves) that if voting were voluntary "Labor would never win".

          I think that assessment is as valid today as it was then.

          In any case, I dispute that we actually have compulsory voting in this country. What we do have is "compulsory turn up to a polling place"; what you do with the voting slip after having your name crossed off is up to you, no one actually forces you to vote.

          Date and time
          August 06, 2014, 6:49AM
          • Voluntary voting proves you can still end up with a dud. Look at the last US election.

            The Chief
            Date and time
            August 06, 2014, 7:23AM
            • Optional voting makes it much easier for the incumbent government to disenfranchise voters. In the USA there were complaints that with the last Bush election voting booths in democratic areas had been relocated without anyone being informed and few voting booths were supplied so the queues were massive. Voting on Tuesdays means that democrat voting workers have to ask their republican employers to take the time off to vote.

              Tony McIntyre
              Lower Mitcham SA
              Date and time
              August 06, 2014, 8:05AM
              • This isn't the issue but it should be changed but only after we address funding of political parties and the abolition of the States and the Senate - we are over governed !

                Northern Beaches
                Date and time
                August 06, 2014, 8:31AM
                • Not unexpectedly for a politician, this proposal entirely ignores the elephant in the room.

                  We do have a voting problem in Australia but it is not the initial compulsory voting aspect, it is that the entire system is grossly undemocratic, a problem that is further exacerbated by the completely loony compulsory allocation of preferences.

                  At every election, I am legally COMPELLED to commit perjury. I am compelled to allocate preferences to candidates that I would rather see in prison than parliament. Doesn’t matter, you say? Har Har!! Tell that to the person who holds the balance of power in the Senate!!

                  Then there is the small matter of parties being allocated a percentage of seats that bears no relationship to the percentage of the vote the received. When a party can glean twice the number of seats than another party that got the same or more votes, the word ‘democracy’ becomes utterly meaningless.

                  Australia has an undemocratic voting system and no amount of smoke and mirrors or political spin can alter the fact. Will we ever get a democratic system? No, because it is politicians who devise the rules. We are stuck with a grossly undemocratic system!!

                  The Time Traveller
                  Date and time
                  August 06, 2014, 8:58AM
                  • Compulsory voting is an insult. Why should those who do not care, those who see voting as a Tweedledum vs. Tweedledummer choice and those who do not understand the issues and the system be compelled to cast what are, in reality, meaningless votes? Few countries have compulsory voting. In fact, it is a tired old ploy from the solidarity mob who fear they would fail without conscripted, unthinking votes.

                    Date and time
                    August 06, 2014, 9:01AM
                    • Agree with all your points, Sally.

                      Also, with a significant majority of the population voting in elections, it means that even if you don't like the winner you can be reassured that at least the outcome was fair (leaving aside some questionable electoral boundaries) and represents the will of the majority of the population.

                      Compulsory voting means elections are not determined sheerly by money or relying on the individual motivation of people - who may be more representative of the extremes in each party rather than the centre, and which will ultimately lead to more extremes in policy development. Asking people every three years to think about who they want running the country doesn't seem a very big ask of citizens to avoid these kinds of outcomes.

                      Date and time
                      August 06, 2014, 9:18AM

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