If you didn’t have to, would you vote?

Americans headed to the polls yesterday to re-elect Barack Obama as the President of the United States. Voting turnout in the US was lower than Obama’s first election victory in 2008, but he was still managed to make history yet again becoming the second Democrat to win a second four-year White House term since World War II.

The US election caused Australians to question our own political system – why is there so much interest in an election that we have no say in and so little interest in political debate within Australia?

One of the fundamental differences between our systems is compulsory voting. In the US voting is completely voluntary, and politicians need to woo voters; inspire them to leave their homes and exercise their right to vote.

In Australia, compulsory voting in federal elections was introduced in 1924 while compulsory enrolment for federal elections had been introduced in 1912.

Looking back at our history of voting, it seems compulsory voting was introduced to fight a growing apathy. Only 71 per cent of the population voted at the 1919 election, but this had dropped to less than 60 per cent by the 1922 election. And the impact was immediate. The turnout at the 1925 election was over 91 per cent.

Victoria introduced compulsory voting in 1926, NSW and Tasmania in 1928, WA in 1936 and SA in 1942. Qld had already introduced complusory voting in 1915.

Australia is among only 22 other countries with compulsory voting. And only 10 countries, including Australia, actively enforce it. And out of the 30 member states of the OECD, of which Australia is one, only 10 has forms of compulsory voting.

If voting were to become voluntary I believe there would be a definite shift in the way politicians operate during elections. Campaigns would become so much more consuming and overwhelming of the public as they fight for your vote.

Voting is a right, and a responsibility – one so many people take for granted. It is a shame that while people all over the world fight and campaign for the right, Australians readily dismiss it as a mere annoyance.

But while it is a right, and a responsbility to be taken seriously, we do live in a democratic nation and the question of voluntary voting is worthy of debate.

Should we as a nation change our compulsory laws and move in line with so many other countries? Would this encourage more active engagement with politics or increase levels of apathy to a point of non-involvement? Would you change your current voting habits if voting were to become voluntary in Australia? Let us know what you think via our comment section, on our Facebook page or on Twitter.

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6 Comments

Filed under Politics in a Pinch

6 responses to “If you didn’t have to, would you vote?

  1. Tara

    This is an issue I feel very strongly about. We are so incredibly fortunate to live in a democratic society with freedom of speech, and with this comes the right, and the responsibility to vote. The ideal which underpins democracy is that each individual (and their vote) is of equal value, regardless of gender, religion, occupation, etc. I can’t help but feel that this ideal would be somewhat undermined is only some individuals actually voted.

    The political apathy in Australia frustrates me immensely, but I just don’t believe that changing to a voluntary voting system is the way to address this issue. I agree that there would be a shift in the way that political campaigns operate, but this would most likely just mean even more emphasis on trying to win over the middle class with tax cuts and child care rebates, while issues such as education and health reform are pushed aside.

  2. I’m one of the least nationalistic people around and I care little for politics. However, voting is less a right and more a duty. It’s the price we pay for being in a democracy.

    Granted our voting choices are generally limited to the two major parties and nothing ever seems to change but that doesn’t mean that we should be able to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.

    I can see an argument for it for local council elections because frankly they seem to be a total waste of time. In my last one almost every single one of the candidates had the same policies: keep rates low, improve transport/traffic, reduce development.

    Except the LIberals. They were running an “against Labor, the Greens and Independents” campaign… Not “for” anything, just against everyone else.

  3. Sean

    The thing that seems to underpin everyone’s thoughts on the issue of whether to vote or not seems to come from this sense of democracy. It doesn’t seem to have any clear driver i.e. whether you see it as a freedom, a right, a privilege or a moral obligation peoples arguments generally or at least their basic pretence seems to centre around democracy.

    I don’t believe for one second that any person in any developed democratic societies have what would be the textbook definition of human rights however, I do realise that we have more rights than people in other countries with other forms of government and differing religious/cultural structures and strictures. I believe that what freedoms we have really do need to be protected and if that means we have to vote or fight to protect them then so be it.

    I believe that forcing someone to vote removes their democratic right to abstain from voting and that in the absence of a candidate who the voting individual feels represents a truly more beneficial position than the other contender that there should be an option for an abstinence of vote (yes I know technically we are not forced to vote only to show up and have our name marked off – however, that defeats the purpose of a reply).

    To demonstrate why it removes a right not to vote I raise a hypothetical position; imagine a world where we are forced to vote (actually forced we cant even do a blank ballot). Where both significant candidates actually represent a horrible position and the conditions of ceteris paribus apply (i.e. no party can get in without a significant majority of preferences etc. etc.) (and again for simplicity sake assume there are no other significant running parties). If our hypothetical choice is between say Hitler and Stalin should we be forced to vote in one above the other? Even on a simpler level, should both parties have horrid planned policies (different but equally abhorrent) should we be forced to vote to elect one (again in the absence of a significantly “better” opposition). It may sound implausible but who knows where the zeitgeist will be in our future.

    I have abstained from voting ion the past as I felt that none of the significant candidates in my electorate truly represented a “good” future for Australia. Don’t let my argument fool you, should I believe a party represents a significant benefit or the a significantly detrimental position I will and have vote/d without hesitation.

    I think ultimately the choice should always lie with the voter and I think unless it does, then voting to uphold a democracy, the future of our democracy or the right to vote will always be somewhat of a mute point.

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  5. Geoff

    Well I’ll be coming down on Sean’s side on this.

    We have “compulsory voting”… if you are registered.
    You get fined if you don’t, and are.
    But… you need only turn up and have your name marked off the roll… what you do after that with your ballot, is completely up to you.

    Is it true democracy to force someone to vote?
    Shouldn’t people have the right to abstain?
    Does it encourage mindless tribal voting?
    Is preferential voting distorting our democracy? After all if you are forced to vote for many people your vote could end up with someone you didn’t want to vote for.
    So shouldn’t voting always be Optional Preferential?

  6. Geoff

    Would I vote if it wasn’t compulsory?
    YES.

    But it would be more democratic if it was Optional Preferential and more secure if photo ids were needed for voter identification. Those are 2 changes I would make before making voting non-compulsory.

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