Turnout at the last Federal Election, in 2016, was the lowest recorded since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1925, and more than 600,000 residents are missing from the roll, according to the Australian Electoral Commission.
On budget night this month, 1.4 million Australians tuned in to Married at First Sight while only half a million watched Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s speech.
Australia has seen hung Parliaments, minority governments, leadership spills and an increase in populist politics as voters begin to feel powerless to bring about change.
A 1996 report from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended a return to voluntary voting, stating “if Australia is to consider itself a mature democracy, compulsory voting should now be abolished. The assertion that voting is a ‘right’ means little if one can be imprisoned for conscientiously choosing not to exercise that right”.
In 1992, Aboriginal lawyer and activist, Michael Mansell, was ordered to pay a fine or face three days in prison for refusing to vote because he considered himself a member of the Aboriginal nation. A number of Australians have been jailed for not voting “on principle”. Between 2013 and 2016 in Victoria, 50 cases of failure to vote without a valid and sufficient excuse were heard in the Courts.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act imposes a duty to vote at each election, failure to do so without “valid and sufficient reason” is an offence. According to case law, such reasons include physical obstruction, sickness, natural disasters or accidents, helping in an emergency or preventing a crime.
Of the 22 countries that have mandatory voting laws, few enforce them.
Under the referendum acts, religious beliefs also constitute a valid and sufficient reason. This is the latest position taken up by media personality and Member of Parliament Derryn Hinch, who was fined for not voting in a 2012 state election and the 2013 federal election. Hinch previously argued that compulsory voting was unconstitutional.
The Constitution specifies that representatives should be “chosen by the people”, interpreted in case law as exercising a free and informed choice. UN declarations on human and political rights also refer to “freely chosen representatives”. But are they freely chosen if voting is not?
Australians also have an implied right to freedom of political communication. Casting (or not casting) a ballot is arguably a form of political expression covered by this precedent.
Arguments for compulsory voting
Compulsory voting encourages a high level of political participation. Since compulsory voting was introduced in Australia, voter turnout has never fallen below 90%.
Legitimacy of government
Low voter turnout undermines the legitimacy of government, as has been seen in the UK with Brexit and in the US with Trump. However, citizens are still bound by a social contract to abide by decisions they may not necessarily agree with.
Compulsory voting saves time and money as candidates needn’t convince voters to attend the polls, enabling them to focus on issues important to the electorates.
Compulsory voting isn’t really compulsory. While the law imposes a duty to attend the polls, voters are not compelled to cast a formal vote.
Arguments against compulsory voting
Dissatisfaction with candidates or the political system
Some voters believe none of the candidates deserves their vote, some are dissatisfied with the system as a whole. Professor of Political Science Marc Hooghe argues in his article Do reluctant voters vote less accurately? The effect of compulsory voting on party–voter congruence in Australia and Belgium, that compulsory voting does not give these groups a voice within the democratic decision-making process.
Compulsory voting infringes on individual liberty. Kate Swenson, lawyer and author of Sticks, Carrots, Donkey Votes, and true choice: A rationale for abolishing compulsory voting in Australia argues refusing to cast a ballot is a sincere form of political expression and it ceases to be democratic when people are forced to choose it.
Swenson suggests the duty to vote should be distinguished from other civic duties (such as Jury service) and non-voters should be given the same freedom as conscientious objectors. She encourages citizens to constantly examine the legitimacy of the State and they should be allowed to communicate their dissent by not voting.
Swenson believes compulsory voting is incompatible with democracy and antithetical to the democratic value of individual freedom because it stifles the expression of political dissent.
Inconsistency and cost of punishment
Swenson points out the contradiction of punishing those who fail to attend the polls, while informal voters escape punishment due to the confidentiality of the poll.
Time and money are also wasted on determining whether those who failed to vote have valid reasons, and, if not, fining them.
Increased informal voting
According to the AEC’s latest research report, the informality rate at the 2013 federal election was the highest recorded in 35 years. Although it is impossible to know whether someone marks their ballot paper incorrectly by accident rather than civil disobedience, compelling people to attend the polls is bound to increase the amount of “donkey” and informal votes.
Lack of interest in politics
According to Prof Hooghe, compulsory voting forces the least interested in politics to vote. As a result, reluctant voters may cast their votes in a more random manner.
Many Australians don’t know who our Prime Minister is (and, with the many recent leadership spills, who can blame them).
Many Australians incorrectly believe we have an American-style system, voting for an individual rather than a party which chooses its own leaders (and, of course, changes them from time to time).
Prof Hooghe argues those who only vote out of obligation are incapable of casting a meaningful vote – the one they would have cast if they had full access to information about our political system.
‘Incorrect’ votes have the capacity to undermine democratic representation if people elect representatives who don’t accurately represent their views, giving governments an inaccurate representation of public opinion based on those results.
Compulsory voting has been blamed for the two major parties securing ‘safe’ electorates and only focusing their attention on marginal electorates, leading to ‘pork barrelling’ – spending less on safe seats and more on marginal seats and swinging voters.
Candidates also receive funding based on the amounts of votes they receive, further benefiting the two major parties at the expense of taxpayers. Swenson suspects a return to voluntary voting may force politicians to broaden their campaigning efforts.