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"The case against compulsory voting"

by Padraic McGuinness

In political matters, often the strongest case for a change in habitual arrangements is precisely that they are habitual and any change will, by shaking up the system, promote change for the better.

Thus there are strong arguments in favour of voting on a proportional representation and on a first-past-the-post system, but any system which has become customary will have acquired its barnacles and rust and have begun to be subject to abuse; the great advantage of a change is that it will disrupt the arrangements of the professionals who have learnt how to abuse the system.

The arguments for compulsory voting are, in essence, that it imposes a civic duty upon the citizens of a democracy, and that it serves to educate them by bringing them regularly to perform that civic duty. These, if true, would be quite strong arguments.

However, the reality is that the system of compulsory voting is favoured by both the major political parties because it enables them to economise on an important element of campaigning: it obliges their loyal voters, however apathetic, to turn up to vote the party ticket without the parties having to spend anything on persuading them or on transporting them to the polling booth as happens in democracies where voting is optional. Thus it favours the established parties who have a large traditionally loyal constituency, as against minor parties and independents whose followers are likely to be much more enthusiastic.

It has also been favoured by the Labor Party especially, which sees itself as depending in part on a large number of not very literate supporters who need to be chivvied to the polls and then presented with simple instructions as to how to vote. (It is notable that it is the Labor Party which has introduced or supported such measures as optional preferential voting, the possibility of voting easily for a party ticket in the Senate rather than having to fill out a long sequence of preferences, and the acceptability of a simple mark rather than a number as indication of voting preference.)

The nature of the Labor constituency is, however, changing, and it may well be that Labor is underestimating both the literacy and the intelligence of its voters. The donkey vote is a declining source of support.

But both parties have an interest in having their supporters forced to the polls through the apparently independent mechanism of the electoral law. Moreover, they have tried to make it difficult to vote deliberately informal as a protest, and have misrepresented informal voting as a product of incompetence rather than deliberate decision.

Compulsory voting has taken an even uglier form in recent times with the amendments to the electoral law in late 1992 which made it illegal even to advocate an informal vote; this is at present under challenge in the High Court as incompatible with the right of free political speech which the court has found to be implicit in the Constitution.

The mere fact that compulsory voting has been so widely embraced by the current party system (with the exception of South Australia where a recent attempt to abandon it was blocked with the help of the Australian Democrat members of the Upper House) is itself a good argument for changing it. Anything which might shake up the parties and make them more concerned with the support of the community and their supporters rather than with the perpetuation of the extremely undemocratic and elitist preselection systems as at present, would seem to be beneficial.

However, there are more fundamental reasons for objecting to compulsory voting. One is essentially a civil liberties argument. One of the worst features of totalitarian or oppressive regimes is that it is necessary to take an interest in politics under them, either as a result of coercion into official demonstrations and so on or in order to contest their power. Surely it is a fundamental human right to be left alone, to be allowed to live one's own life within the law but otherwise unmolested, and to take no interest in policies at all except by choice. Compulsory voting, by imposing participation in the election of politicians and governments, infringes the right to be apolitical.

Ideally in a democracy a person should be free to participate in the electoral and political process whenever he or she wishes to, and to ignore it equally without having to account to government or courts. Just as the right to free speech entails the right to silence, so the right to vote must imply the right to abstain, even from registration and turnout.

Beyond this, it is arguable that it debases the democratic process to coerce people into participating in it. There are many issues which concern only activist minorities and in which there is no reason to engage those who do not care greatly what the outcome of the debate might be. Compulsory voting, by forcing the uninterested to vote, ensures that the process and outcome of the vote will be informed by considerations which are much less rational than appropriate and encourages the offering of bribes to the electorate.

Thus just as ancient Rome pacified its citizens with distributions of free bread and the provision of circuses and games of ever-escalating scale and cruelty, so the same tendencies can be seen in modern Australia where social security dependency has been increasing steadily and where free broadcasting of violent sporting events has become government policy. This is clearly designed to appeal to unthinking but enfranchised plebs who are forced to the polls.

By contrast there are strong reasons for leaving the vote in elections to those who actively wish to exercise it, and at the same time leaving it to them, individually or through their political parties, to encourage and persuade their fellow citizens to exercise it also.

To me it seems a gross violation of my civil liberties and those of others that we should be forced to vote for a party or a candidate no matter how loathsome they may all be or that, even worse, we should be prohibited from advocating, in these circumstances, a deliberate informal vote or an abstention. Compulsory voting has become a conspiracy of the establishment against the free exercise by the citizenry of their civic rights.

Padraic McGuinness is a columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.


"I don't believe in compulsory voting. In particular, I don't believe that political journalists should vote and I pay the fine after each election. Some politicians won't let you interview them if they know which way you have voted." - Derryn Hinch, TV Presenter


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