Whichever way you dice it, compulsory voting is evil

One of the great myths of Australian politics is that voting isn’t really compulsory. The view persists that all voters need do on the day is turn up and have their name crossed off the register. Kim Beazley, for example, recently said, ”We don’t have compulsory voting in Australia . it’s an evil thing to oblige people to vote, well of course it is and nobody does.”

Well, nobody other than the Parliament, the Electoral Act, the Australian Electoral Commission, the courts and ultimately the criminal justice system. Over the years, many voters have tested the compulsory nature of our voting system in the courts. The judges enforcing the Electoral Act have all been under the impression that Australia practices compulsory voting, and have ruled accordingly. Voters must actually mark their ballot, and deposit that ballot into a ballot box.

The current confusion is simply due to a conflict of laws. Voters are required to vote in a secret ballot. Officials cannot actually determine that a voter has correctly voted once they turn up at the polling place. In other words, except for egregious violations of the Act, the compulsory voting provisions of Australian law are currently unenforceable. These violations generally relate to those individuals who didn’t turn up on the day. At the 2004 election 52,796 individuals paid the $20 fine for not voting – an increase from 39,874 at the 2001 election.

Another great myth of Australian politics is that voluntary voting would only benefit the conservative side of politics. Voluntary voting is said to disadvantage the poor, ignorant, and illiterate. In particular, voluntary voting would lead to a decline in the vote share of the ALP and minor parties. In reply, proponents of voluntary voting argue that most Australians would vote anyway so voluntary voting would have little impact on electoral outcomes.

Both sides of the debate are partially correct. Based on an analysis of likely voting behaviour over the past four federal elections, using data from post-election surveys that ask about attitudes to voluntary voting, we can report that turnout would likely decline from the actual 95 per cent or so to a range between 55 and 69 per cent. By comparison the turnout at the recent British election was 61 per cent. Despite this drop in turnout, however, electoral outcomes wouldn’t change very much.

Most studies that investigate the impact of compulsory voting only look at the House of Representatives where government is formed. Looking at the past four elections, our analysis shows that voluntary voting does favour the Liberal Party and would disadvantage the minor parties, but not always the ALP. In other words, compulsory voting advantages the minor parties in the House where, at present, they already have no representation. A move to voluntary voting would cost the minor parties nothing.

To see the full impact of compulsory voting we need to investigate the Senate. While most commentators recognise voting behaviour differs between the House and the Senate, most also assume compulsory voting has the same effect across both houses. Not so, according to our analysis.

In each of the last four elections, the Democrats and the Greens would have had a higher vote share if there had been a voluntary voting regime. The Democrats are huge losers under the current compulsory regime. In 1998, they may have received as much as 15.63 per cent of the Senate vote, as opposed to the actual 8.18 per cent they did receive. The composition of the Senate would be different.

The biggest decline in vote share occurs for informal voting, One Nation and independents. The decline in informal voting is quite remarkable.

Our analysis indicates that those individuals who don’t understand how to engage with compulsory preferential voting would not vote. In other words, an additional cost of compulsory voting regimes is to force individuals to the ballot box who are too embarrassed to ask for assistance, and who otherwise would not vote. Our analysis shows the same government, following much the same policies, would have been elected at each of the last four elections. A change to voluntary voting would lead to decline in voter turnout, but would not lead to a substantial change in government policies. Compulsory voting is ”an evil thing” that has no place in a sophisticated, advanced democracy. Ultimately it survives as a form of paternalism. Some voters, it seems, don’t know that they should vote – they don’t know what is good for them. Yet under compulsory voting they do seem to know what is good for the country.

Derek Chong, Sinclair Davidson and Tim Fry are in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University . This is based on the cover article, ”It’s An Evil Thing to Oblige People to Vote”, in the Summer 2005-06 issue of Policy magazine, published by The Centre for Independent Studies.