Compulsory Voting: Why it’s here to stay


Traffic near the early voting centre at Blackburn North

Compulsory voting is an issue that has featured prominently in public discourse in the United States, particularly in the wake of President Donald’s Trump’s 2016 Election victory. Many consider it a step in the right direction for US democracy, pointing to Australia as an example of where it has traditionally worked well.

But how and why does compulsory voting actually work? There’s a reasonable chance you are not au fait with why we are one of the few countries in the world to implement it, or why we are forced to turn up and consider our views about every candidate or party despite the fact we probably do not know all of their policies.

Let us consider how our election system functions, its strengths and flaws and if there is any real possibility it will, or should, change to a non-compulsory system similar to that which we see in action in other Western countries.

A brief history of the Australian voting system

Compulsory voting is an institution in Australia. It has been in place for federal elections since 1924, meaning it is likely you don’t remember a time when skipping the Saturday polling booths was not an act that landed you in hot water.

“The reason it was introduced, and it was bipartisan back in the 1920s, (was that) both Labor and the then-Nationalist Party agreed the forging of the new Commonwealth was a bit troubled”, explains Haydon Manning, Associate Professor in the disciplines of Politics and International Relations at Flinders University.

“People weren’t really voting… at national elections, so there was a concern that the building of the Commonwealth of Australia, this community that was going to be Australia, was stalling and needed some remedial action.”

Indeed, the impetus from both major parties to introduce compulsory voting was the stark decline in voter turnout. An Australian Electoral Commission report from 2006 cites that while more than 71% of registered voters attended the polls in 1919, that figure fell to just 59.4% in 1922. The level of voter turnout in Australia has never fallen below 91% since the 1925 Federal election.

By introducing compulsory voting, Australia followed the lead of nations such as Belgium and Argentina in compelling our citizens to vote. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), we are one of only 27 countries around the world who still retains this system, and one of only 13 that actually enforces it.

The current status of compulsory voting in Australia

Traditionally, the Liberal Party have proven the most ready and willing to abolish the system, with former Finance Minister Nick Minchin pushing for the Howard Government to make this position party policy for the then-forthcoming election.

“The classic Liberal argument is that the state should not venture into that area, that they shouldn’t make you go out and vote”, states Associate Professor Manning.

However, it is clear this keenness is not shared by the current Liberal Government.

Mr Minchin’s push for its abolition was almost 15 years ago, and South Australian MP Josh Teague, the Liberal Member for Heysen, stresses that it is simply no longer on the radar these days.

“It’s not an issue that’s up for debate, and… it’s not so much a party or party-political position as it is a topic that’s up for discussion by anybody that’s interested in electoral matters and electoral reform”, Mr Teague says.

In equal measure, Associate Professor Manning asserts that he “[doesn’t] think there’s any appetite from the Liberal Party [and so] you could argue there’s no appetite politically to change compulsory voting.”

Additionally, our current system has generally had a high approval rating with citizens. The Australian Election Study, which analyses election statistics between 1987 and 2016, found that 70% of respondents support compulsory voting and 80% would vote even if it wasn’t compulsory. Interestingly, only 34% of those surveyed said they had a good deal of interest in politics.

“Most people have a sense of the difference between the major parties”, Associate Professor Manning explains. “They don’t have to weigh things up all that closely to still feel on balance [that] ‘they’ll do better by me than the other party.’”

There is no real threat of compulsory voting being overhauled any time soon. However, this does not mean we can’t ponder the benefits and detriments of our current system.

The case for compulsory voting

Perhaps the most obvious argument in favour of compulsory voting is its ability to result in a truly representative government, one which is decided by the vast majority of the voting public.

State Labor MP Tony Piccolo, the Member for Light and Shadow Minister for Planning and Local Government, Housing and Urban Development and Veterans’ Affairs, agrees the compulsory system is essential to upholding a fair and balanced governmental system.

“It sends a strong message that voting is very important and our democracy is very important [and that] you have to vote to be a part of our democracy”, Mr Piccolo says.

“I think that as a result we get a government and parliament which is more reflective of the community compared to those societies where they don’t have it, where more powerful voices can skew the result.”

“The voluntary voting system in America demonstrates why you need compulsory voting. You can get a President who is elected with 50% of the vote, but only 50% of the people voted, so you can have a person leading the nation who has 25% of the vote at best. That’s not a good thing.”

According to the Pew Research Centre, a record 137.5 million US voters cast their ballots on Election Day in 2016, representing 61.4% of the eligible voting population. Current President Donald Trump won that election with 62,984,828 votes, representing just 19.4% of the US population.

Comparatively, the 2019 Australian Federal Election saw just under 92% of eligible voters attend the polls.

The primary reason why compulsory voting is so successful and generally popular is because, according to Dutch professors Galen A. Irwin and Joop J.M. van Holsteyn, Australians have largely subscribed to the idea of “civic obligation”; that is, voting is simply an obligation citizens owe to the state in order to uphold our democratic process.

“People are very much aware of the expectation on them”, explains Mr Teague. “[Compulsory voting] means we all have buy-in to the election outcome, which is not so much the case in countries where there is optional voting and, combined with a low turnout, I think that can ultimately affect the extent to which people feel a part of that democratic process.”

Uninformed, disengaged and disgruntled voters

There is a clear correlation between Australia’s enforced vote and the levels of informal voting, otherwise known as a spoiled or donkey vote. An Australian Electoral Commission report revealed that at the 2016 Election, rates of informality were the lowest in almost ten years at 5.05% of the 14,262,016 votes cast, or approximately 720,000 informal ballots.

In comparison, the Pew Research Centre found that at the US Election in the same year, only 170,000 ballots were spoiled out of a total of 137.5 million, meaning the country’s level of informal voting sat at the scarcely noticeable rate of 0.12%.

This is seen as a manifestation of the attitudes of our country’s voters who either do not know, do not care or actively do not want to vote to provide their input. It’s compounded by the demands our preferential voting system places on those who are not as invested in policies or outcomes.

“We do ask a lot of voters in Australia”, Associate Professor Manning says. “Our voting system is different between the House and the Senate, our ballots are quite different, and with preferential voting in particular, we’ve got quite a demanding voting system compared to other nations.”

“I can tell you from the number of community talks I give… you get around 5% of any audience, it wouldn’t matter what age, [who] know how the preferences work.”

If this is the case, should more be done to educate our voters on electoral matters and party policies? Mr Teague and Mr Piccolo think not, as they both put their faith in their voters to adequately prepare themselves for the democratic process in order to suitably partake in it.

“In my experience, (I have) a fairly high degree of confidence in people’s abilities to participate, to inform themselves and to express themselves in the way that they vote, so I don’t see the Australian voter as lacking capacity”, Mr Teague explains.

“I think overwhelmingly people give some pretty thoroughgoing thought to it and they have a pretty clear idea about what they’re doing, so I wouldn’t classify it as a risk (to our democracy).”

Similarly, Mr Piccolo stresses the importance of the compulsory vote in prompting people to do their own investigating, calling the issue a “very small negative compared to the benefits” of the system.

“I think the first and most important message is that [people should] vote. Irrespective of who they vote for, it’s important to vote. If you’re going to vote, you should take the opportunity to inform yourself of what the policies are so you can cast a vote to your interest.”

Is the system fair to both parties?

Studies have shown that compulsory voting in Australia has had a significant impact on the outcomes of past elections. Harvard University academic Anthony Fowler found vote and seat shares for the Labor Party increased by 7-10%, while Australian academics Malcolm Mackerras and Ian McAllister suggest the Coalition’s first preferences were reduced by 5% on the expected number.

These numbers may suggest an apparent bias towards the Labor Party. However, Associate Professor Manning says the system is largely accurate and representative of the attitudes of the wider Australian public.

“The main argument there is that people who are less educated or more underprivileged, who historically have been a stronger group supporting Labor, would not vote if it wasn’t compulsory, and hence Labor would lose a percentage of its vote”, Associate Professor Manning explains.

Mr Piccolo echoes this sentiment, stating that “if you have the perception that you have nothing to lose, or little to lose, then you become less motivated to vote, and therefore one party’s vote goes up above the other.”

“I think that people who benefit from society the most are always going to be more motivated to vote, and therefore if you have more wealth or more property interest, for example, you’ll be out there protecting those interests”.

There is little substance to any political debate right now regarding compulsory voting and whether it should be changed. Its continuing status as Australia’s system of voting is as safe a bet as they come.

Overall, the big losers in this case are the vegetarians and vegans: they’ll have to put up with the smell of ‘democracy sausages’ for years to come.