White House press secretary CJ Cregg in the TV drama The West Wing, on stage at a college campus, quipped to a screaming crowd that ‘decisions are made by those who turn up’. She was encouraging young people of voting age to ‘Rock the Vote’ and participate in an upcoming Presidential election. It was a simple message. Be active in shaping the future or others will do it for you.
In Australia, we have less need to convince people to turn out on Election Day. Compulsory voting laws exist at federal and state level and even cover local government in most states. Is this a good idea? Some argue being compelled to vote is an infringement of our personal freedom? Can’t we have the right not to vote?
With only 22 countries in the ‘club’, we are almost alone among western nations in requiring compulsory voting. No other Commonwealth or Anglo-sphere country requires it. Of the 22 compulsory voting nations only 10 actually enforce the vote with fines or sanctions. A quick scan of the list reveals some if not most of these countries are anything but bastions of civil and political rights. So why bother with a law that other western democracies don’t seem to need?
It turns on this. Does our law make a difference to political participation? If it does we might be advised to hang onto it. In Canada, the UK and the USA voter participation rates run at around 61%, 65%, 57.5% respectively. Just across the ditch the Kiwi rate is a little stronger at 74% but still slim compared with 93% or higher in Australian Federal elections generally. So we seem to have more than the edge in voter turnout.
Is it important to keep the rate high? Just on three years ago I commented in Aurora on the London riots arguing that alienation, inequality and intergenerational immobility were central to understanding the violence. I could have remarked that political disengagement underscores each of these processes. A slow collapse in voting rates of the poor and those on lower incomes allows government and political parties to ignore their needs. When a group of citizens, as we saw in the UK, largely give up on the political process as a means of redress, we incubate violence.
A 2005 study by the Inter-American Development Bank concluded that ‘cross-country analysis for 91 countries during the period 1960-2000 shows that compulsory voting, when enforced strictly, improves income distribution’. Compulsory voting is one way we ensure that no group, no class of people, can be easily disenfranchised.
Moreover, compulsory voting provides some protection against cynical attacks on the franchise. In countries with voluntary voting, political parties often go to extraordinary lengths to energise their political base and ensure a turnout regardless of what dark toxins they release into the nation’s political bloodstream. In the 2004 US Presidential Election, George W Bush invigorated his evangelical Christian supporters by banning gay marriage despite any widespread evidence that marriage equality was then a cause popular among gay advocacy groups. Basically he picked a fight to win an election.
More recently, state-by-state Voter ID laws in the US threaten to shrink the franchise by requiring voters to present to the polling place with only certain types of ID. These laws almost universally favour the Republican Party as they disadvantage minority and low-income communities.
Compulsory voting helps but is not always enough to protect voting rights. Locally, John Howard, with less room to move than his Republican counterparts, changed the electoral law in 2007 to close the rolls on the same evening writs were issued. Again, this operated against transient and younger voters who are traditionally slow to ensure they are correctly enrolled. As these demographics tend to support left-leaning political parties, Howard’s move was widely regarded as a partisan ploy. Manipulating the rolls to deny any group of citizens the vote is not, to put it nicely, ‘Prime Ministerial’.
So what of the argument about freedom? Well, in one sense, we are not compelling anyone to vote; we just compel you to turn up. What you do with your vote remains a private matter. You can cast a donkey vote if you wish but it seems very few of us actually choose to do this. What the Electoral Commission calls ‘informal ballots’ rated 5.5% at the 2010 election and a low 3.9% in 2007. Too, the evidence does not point to donkey voting necessarily. Historically, incomprehensible ballot papers or second-language difficulties more often cause invalid votes in Australia than anything else.
Harking back, the Athenians with their enthusiasm for direct democracy did not always require full turnout but when they did they could be very forceful indeed. Aristophanes records in his play Acharnians that reluctant citizens were herded by public slaves with a red rope into the assembly and fined heavily for their recalcitrance.
More broadly the issue of freedom is a moot point. No one is totally free, nor would anyone really want to be. The state compels us to do lots of things. We vaccinate the kids, take fluoride in our drinking water, wear seatbelts and drive on the same side of the road as everyone else. These things all technically impinge on our freedom, but we accept them as necessary for the common good. We benefit from a well-ordered society and voting in elections is part of that. A weak state is in no position to protect anyone’s rights, mine or yours.
Yes, compulsory voting means we have curtailed an individual right. Big deal. Our American cousins have turned individual rights into a fetish; no need to follow their poor example. Rights are not private; they operate in the public sphere exercised in creative tension alongside numerous other rights. The state has rights too. Every so often, the state requires all of us, and not just some of us, to turn up and give the government a mandate. Requiring citizens to turn up to vote is the least, the very least the state can expect of us. Yes, we are obliged once in a few years to lend a government its legitimacy. Lend is the right word by the way. Next time around we might take it back.
What of the argument that compulsory voting forces those who know nothing of the issues to turn out to vote when they should be left in bed? Well, that’s democracy isn’t it? Don’t you get these voters either way? Rather than accept this as inevitable, perhaps we could stand with Jefferson. “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education.”
Election Day is a great spectacle in Australia. It comes with its own sense of sport. One election day, I was asked by a visiting Indian Mum and Dad to photograph them alongside their son, a newly minted Australian citizen as he emerged from the voting booth. They were dressed to the nines and off to celebrate. A moving moment and more than a slight rebuke to the rest of us for whom voting has become a chore.
Turn out to vote on Election Day and be grateful. However you swing your ballot, it’s a day of some consequence; a government may fall or be re-elected. Writing this some weeks out I won’t try to pick a winner. But I will lay odds on this. There won’t be a gun or tank in sight.
Michael Elphick is a consultant and a freelance writer. He welcomes comments on his writing at firstname.lastname@example.org