Battalions of straw men sprung to life last week, conjured to defend the heretofore-unassailable political edifice known as Australia’s compulsory voting system.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard led the charge, tweeting:
Fight @theqldpremier’s plan to end compulsory voting. Don’t let the Liberals make our democracy the plaything of cashed-up interest groups.
Somewhat inconveniently, the ABC’s Antony Green pointed out that former prime minister Kevin Rudd had also encouraged a discussion on non-compulsory voting back in 2009.
The PM’s call to arms was followed by a flurry of similarly strident tweets. Many expressed horror at the thought of Campbell Newman oxymoronically taking away someone’s freedom by no longer forcing them to vote.
Almost any suggestion that non-compulsory voting could have merit was met with fervent and obdurate rejection.
Compulsory voting proponents vowed that a voluntary system in Australia would undoubtedly follow the US model, beset as it is with disenfranchisement and extremists, and not that of the UK or New Zealand, which is not. US-like ruination was apparently only a matter of time for the 20 other OECD nations that currently allow voluntary voting.
Some supporters defended the compulsion to vote as defence of a right, while others saw it as imposition of a responsibility. “People died so that we can vote,” said one. “Voting is a duty,” said another, “we might as well opt out of other ‘public good’ responsibilities like paying tax and wearing seatbelts.”
A few even tried to have it both ways, arguing that the compulsory vote is actually voluntary because one only has to turn up and not necessarily cast a vote. The Electoral Commission has (also inconveniently) challenged that argument as a common fallacy.
But if the partisan jibes and straw defenders could be set aside, it would become clear that the debate about whether or not a vote should be compelled is really one about political engagement. Many of the arguments raised against voluntary voting rely upon the resigned assumption that, given their druthers, most people could not be bothered voting.
This is the real issue that should be debated and resolved, not a scarecrow battle over compulsory versus voluntary voting.
Compulsory voting may have bestowed Australia with an admirable participation rate, but other statistics show we’re considerably disengaged from politics and becoming more so. As the Australian Electoral Commission rather euphemistically said in its analysis of informal voting at the 2010 federal election, “a challenge remains to maximise electors’ potential participation in the electoral process”.
In the 2010 federal election, the informal vote was the biggest it’s ever been since 1984, rising from 3.95 per cent at the 2007 election to 5.5 per cent. But unintentional informal votes – being those with incomplete numbering showing either a misunderstanding of what’s required or confusion with state election voting processes – actually decreased between the two elections.
It was the level of intentional informal votes that rose, now representing 48.6 per cent of all informal votes. The rate of blank ballots doubled, with more than a quarter of all informal votes cast in the 2010 election being left unmarked. The proportion of informal votes defaced with scribbles, slogans or other protest marks also increased, off a low of 6.4 per cent in 2001 to around 14 per cent in 2007 and 17 per cent in 2010.
Some might be tempted to dismiss this result as the work of Mark Latham, but that would ignore the fact noted by Peter Brent that the informal vote has been on the rise since 1993 with the exception of the 2007 federal election.
Claims that the compulsory vote makes Australians value their democratic choice are as insubstantial as straw man defenders. In 2010, almost a million of the 14 million Australians enrolled to vote simply did not bother to go to a polling booth. Another 1.4 million eligible voters were missing from the electoral roll altogether. And this number has since grown to 1.5 million.
So in 2010, within Australia’s supposedly optimal and indisputably preferable compulsory voting system, an estimated 3.2 million Australians or 21 per cent of eligible adults were either not on the electoral roll, did not turn up to vote, or lodged an informal vote. As Brian Costar and Peter Browne observed at the time, that’s equivalent to 33 federal seats. It also represents a whopping $7 million in electoral funding that never made it to political party coffers.
The compulsory vote may partially disguise Australians’ political disinterest at election time, but there’s no hiding our manifest disengagement at most other times.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that only 19 per cent of adults actively participate in civic and political groups. Alongside the 1 per cent who are active in political parties, 7 per cent participate in a trade union or professional/technical association; 5 per cent in environmental or animal welfare groups; and 4 per cent in body corporate or tenants’ associations.
Perhaps the starkest indication of all is a 2011 opinion poll which found only 10 per cent of respondents follow politics closely. This proportion was quite consistent regardless of political preference and age group, except for over 55s who had a higher level of interest at 17 per cent.
Is it any wonder then that our democracy is looking a little shabby? It’s dependent upon the vote, regardless of whether it’s considered or informed, of citizens forced to attend a polling station on election day. Surely the objective of any democracy should be for voters to value their democratic right enough to participate in political discourse and processes between elections and turn out in force on polling day to cast a considered, informed ballot.
We’re missing the point arguing over the merits of voluntary voting. We should instead be identifying and implementing ways to help Australians better understand and participate in the nation’s democratic processes. This would require more than a one-off civics course in school; it would involve comprehensive and longitudinal exposure to different forms of government, political philosophies and types of engagement; experience in negotiating and advocacy; and immersion in everyday political discourse.
Once our citizens were truly engaged, they would genuinely value their vote and vigorously exercise it. The straw man defence of compulsory voting would be dispersed in the wind. It’s hard to not also conclude that the more citizens there were who decided their vote on policy comparisons instead of fridge magnets, the better quality our politicians and governments would be. Another ancillary benefit would be that viewers and readers would demand better political reporting and analysis from the media too.
Yes, this approach to civil engagement would be challenging and something that no democracy has ventured before. Is that a reason not to do it? Or is it easier to not do something because the US does it badly?
If we can make better coffee and pizza than the Yanks, why can’t we make a better voluntary voting system too?
This post originally appeared at ABC’s The Drum. The comments are well worth reading.