By Paterson, James
Review - Institute of Public Affairs , Vol. 62, No. 4
Research conducted by Newspoll for the Institute of Public Affairs indicates that there is only moderate community support for a change to voluntary voting, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be seriously considered.
The poll, which was conducted from the 8-10 October 2010 and featured 1200 adults, showed 27 per cent of voters support voluntary voting, whilst 70 per cent prefer the status quo. Support was moderately higher among Coalition voters (30 per cent) and voters aged between 18-24 years (31 per cent).
But it would be wrong to read the results of this survey as the definitive answer in this debate. Whilst it is certainly true that Australia is a democracy where majority rules, Australia is also a liberal democracy that respects individual rights. And the fact that nearly one third of voters would like the option of not voting should not be overlooked.
The reality is that there are good reasons why Australia should consider embracing voluntary voting, and why democratic coercion is not only an oxymoron, but also a potentially negative force in Australian politics.
Supporters of compulsory voting typically argue that compulsory voting ?encourages' civic engagement and that a move to voluntary voting would lead to widespread disengagement from politics, with low turnout at elections, and a community disinterested in its own governance.
There is limited international evidence to support this. It's easy for supporters of compulsion to point to the United States-where voter turnout has rarely exceeded 60 per cent in modern presidential elections-and declare that voluntary voting would automatically lead to a dramatic drop in voter participation. But the United States isn't the only democracy to feature voluntary voting. In fact, of the 33 OECD members, only six countries have compulsory voting and actively enforce it. The other 27 either explicitly support voluntary voting (the overwhelming majority) or nominally have compulsory voting laws but rarely enforce them.
Turnout amongst these OECD countries with voluntary voting is much higher than one might expect, averaging almost 80 per cent. The two member countries most culturally similar to Australia-New Zealand and Canada-average 88 and 76 per cent turnout respectively.
It is important to also remember that compulsory voting does not guarantee 100 per cent turnout. For example, at the most recent federal election in Australia, an estimated 93 per cent of enrolled voters actually turned up on polling day to vote. Of those, more than five per cent either intentionally or accidentally cast an invalid vote. Furthermore, ?enrolled voters' is a subset of all eligible voters, as many adults fail to register to vote. So in practice, it is likely that Australia's turnout under compulsory voting is below 90 per cent.
There is little evidence that compulsory voting encourages civic engagement as opposed to simply forcing Australians with the threat of a fine to attend a polling booth on election day, and have their name marked off the electoral roll. Commentators have been quick to declare the result of the last federal election as a ?pox on both your houses' message from voters, and there have been an endless stream of critics who bemoaned the uninspiring offerings from both major parties. Indeed, the ?neither party deserves to win' catch-cry was all the rage among academics and the political commentariat during and after the election. Julia Gillard and the Labor Party have been accused of an over-reliance on focus groups and polling to develop their policies, while Tony Abbott was criticised for his risk-averse campaign. Both parties also supposedly failed to deliver big-ticket, inspiring policy ideas and allegedly pandered to the lowest common denominator on a range of hot political issues. …