The privilege of compulsory voting
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
Just like a lot of other people, I was stressfully watching the US over the past week. We still don’t know how many people voted because tallying is still going on, but about 66% of registered voters turned up for this election. That’s the highest turnout since 1908.
Growing up in Australia, I’m sure most of us remember following a parent into a local school or church as they voted. I was taught in school about how being born as an Australian is a privilege and there are rights and responsibilities that go along with it. Voting is both of these.
I didn’t mean very much to me at the time. As I’ve grown up, I understand that a bit more.
It was a while until I found out or noticed that other countries didn’t require compulsory voting like we do. It took longer than that for it to understand what that really means. There are only 22 countries in the world that require citizens to vote, and of those 22 countries, only 10 enforce it. Some of these countries have harsh restrictions, like Bolivia (where you can’t receive their salary from the bank if they don’t present proof of voting) or North Korea (where there is only one candidate on the ballot and the purpose is to track citizens). Others have a fine, like Australia. Honestly, I only found out last year that the UK has optional voting. I assumed that we had adopted the notion from them; so it is even more impressive to know that Australia was somewhat of a trailblazer with this policy. Not to brag, but Queensland was the first state to bring in the requirement for voting in 1915, and other states following (unfortunately excluding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders until, the embarrassingly late, 1984).
It has been truly baffling to see people driving for hours and waiting for hours in line in the latest US election. What goes along with our voting system is a lack of voter suppression. We have the electoral commission who enforce rules about canvassing election day and harassing voters. We have a rate of approx. 96% of eligible voters enrolled and of those, over 90% who show up to vote.
Voting on election day is almost an enjoyable event within the community. You show up with your neighbours and have your democracy sausage and aren’t overly hassled by canvassers. It actually isn't that political at all.
We can vote on election day, at pre-poll, by mail, or by phone - whatever we find easiest. The introduction of telephone voting removes yet another boundary so people who can't leave their house or live with assistance can call in.
The election is on the weekend. We don’t have to take off work.
I'm as guilty of this as anyone else, but we get so caught up in the doom and gloom and embarrassments made by our government to forget how many visitors we have made over the years.
It is obvious that voting has the biggest benefit but also biggest to cost to disadvantaged people, who can't afford to take a weekday off from work and stand in line for six hours to vote.
Research results are still mixed as to whether compulsory voting has improved political literacy/activation. Compulsory voting removes a lot of measures that governments and political parties weaponise for voter suppression.
In Australia, compulsory doesn't necessarily benefit the left not the right, but elsewhere, it is conservative governments who gains. But whether compulsory voting means a stronger and more politically engaged society or not, you can't argue that minimising voter suppression contributes to a fairer democracy.