You wouldn’t know from its current premier, but Queensland was the first state in Australia to introduce compulsory voting. It did so in 1915 and nine years later, Western Australian Nationalist Party MP Edward Mann introduced the bill to expand compulsory voting across Australia.
Ninety-eight years later, Campbell Newman’s LNP government in Queensland has proposed that compulsory voting be abandoned in that state.
Australia has compulsory voting primarily because in the 24 years after Federation, voter participation dropped to dangerously low levels — as low as 28 per cent.
The controversial response from the conservative parliament was to require Australians to vote.
In this country, unlike in America, we do not worship our constitution. Whereas the US constitution proclaims a government by "We the people", in Australia, we more prosaically note that "The House of Representatives shall be composed of members directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth".
It’s worth emphasising that it says "directly chosen by the people". It doesn’t say "chosen by half of the people", or "15 per cent of the people".
When voting gets as low as 28 per cent, democracy is endangered. This is what the conservative government realised in 1924. Low participation entrenches inequality. It threatens the legitimacy of our country’s government because a low vote ensures that only a minority is represented instead of a majority.
In particular, such small voter turnout fosters a mindset amongst politicians, the civil service and the business community that elections are a burden and an interruption. With a minority of society deciding the government for the majority, it is easier than ever for special interests to distort public policy.
Low turnout is a problem for almost every country in the world — especially our closest cultural peers, the USA and UK. Even with rockstar candidates like Obama, participation rarely peaks about 65 per cent. Voter turnout fell from 62.3 per cent in 2008 to an estimated 57.5 per cent in 2012.
What’s more, the 2012 election saw unprecedented attempts by Republicans, bankrolled by conservative billionaires and multinational corporations, to suppress the vote of African Americans, Latinos and young people.
Expanding the number of people who vote is not only virtuous in itself. It helps defend our democracy and ensures it is more likely to act in the interests of all the people, not a moneyed minority.
Unequal voter participation has other negative consequences. The people least likely to vote under voluntary systems are people from the least privileged backgrounds. They are people with low incomes, or from ethnic backgrounds, or with less education.
In most industrialised countries, it is age and education that have most impact on whether you vote or not. This means that younger people are less likely to vote — not because they’re lazy, but because they have less access to free time, less income, less time to devote to civic activities (not all young people are Arts students after all).
If you accept that our goal in a democracy should be to maximise participation and maximise voting — whether you think it’s good in itself, or because it gives a voice to everyone in our community — there are a number of ways to get more people to vote.
The government could spend vast sums of money in social marketing campaigns (which it does for things like fire-safety and anti-smoking campaigns). It is dubious how effective this kind of awareness raising and education is.
You could rely on the political parties to mobilise supporters to get to the polls to vote. Unfortunately, as we see in other countries, this largely results in a vocal minority dominating the public discourse (witness the Tea Party in the USA).
Because the motivated minority is more likely to vote and to dominate the debate, it is actually in their interest to try to depress the turnout of opposition groups. We’ve seen this with the voter suppression laws that Republicans introduced in many states in the USA.
The experience in other countries like the UK and USA, and in Australia before 1924, shows that turnout still rarely gets above 80 per cent, and are more likely to be less than 65 pe rcent. And this is after decades of government awareness programs and party "Get Out The Vote" operations.
Simply, compulsory voting can help rapidly raise participation in voting. It is immediate and addresses both low turnout and the inequality of participation. In the 24 elections since 1946, voter participation has averaged above 94 per cent.
What’s more, there are additional benefits to compulsory voting, above and beyond the strengthening of our democracy.
Without having to mobilise minority sections of the community, politicians instead must focus on making a case for support. Our democracy in Australia is more centrist and more stable. Compare to the extreme polarisation of the USA, where a minority holds the entire country to hostage in high stake ideological battles over the debt ceiling or fiscal cliff.
Clearly, there are people who really don’t want to vote, and our current compulsory voting laws do not prevent that; it allows for conscientious objectors and legimitate excuses for being unable to access a voting booth. No-one is unnecessarily penalised.
The argument that compulsory voting is incompatible with democratic government, patently doesn’t apply to Australia — one of the most open, transparent, representative, and least corrupt nations on earth.
Other arguments say that it encourages uninformed voting. Who’s to say whether voters are informed or not? After almost a century of compulsory voting, who’s to say whether most people vote for fear of a $20 fine or because they recognise the value of this small act of civic participation? In any case, it is not immoral to cast an uninformed vote or to not vote conscientiously.
Finally, the argument that individual liberty is impinged by compulsory voting is the weakest of all. The requirement to attend the polling booth once every three years violates no essential liberties.
As Edward Mann said, individual liberty is freedom from unnecessary legal control; political liberty is participation in legal control. You can’t have genuine individual liberty while refusing to participate in the system that regulates the society you live in. In fact, when a wide majority of people participate in the political process, it acts as a guard against invasions of individual liberty.
Voting and participating is a public good; everyone benefits even if their candidate doesn’t get elected. Large-scale non-voting threatens our political liberties and can create dangerous inequality in our democracy.
The voluntary alternative, while not undemocratic (compared to systems where no-one can vote), is less democratic than our compulsory voting system. That’s why Australia should be proud of our compulsory voting, and defend it.