Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Compulsory Voting, Political Shyness and Welfare Outcomes(1)

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Compulsory Voting, Political Shyness and Welfare Outcomes(1)

Article excerpt

Mackerras and McAllister (1996: 2) tell us that `Australia has the oldest and probably the most efficient system of compulsory voting' of any of the advanced democracies. And yet, in 1997 the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters tabled a report in Parliament recommending that the compulsory voting requirement for federal elections and referenda be repealed.(2) More recently, Senator Chris Ellison (the minister responsible for federal electoral arrangements) introduced a Bill into the Australian Parliament which sought to deprive all prisoners of their federal voting rights.(3)

In this paper I go beyond the usual liberal/democratic debates about the justifiability of compulsion or arguments about partisan benefit, towards a discussion of its social and economic functions. Drawing on a broad base of secondary comparative research it is argued that compulsion provides protection against social and economic marginality; protection which becomes more urgent in periods of economic insecurity. It is further suggested that, given a number of trends both here and in comparable contexts, it would be a particularly bad time for Australians to consider abandoning the present system. These trends include: government policy which exacerbates socio-economic insecurity; greater time pressures upon those in work; increasing alienation and apathy among the young; a global trend among industrialised nations towards political demobilisation, and finally, innovations in information technology which may exacerbate the distance between voters and political affairs.

A secondary theme focuses on the way in which abstention can be understood not simply as a political but also as an emotional and psychological response to marginalisation and isolation. Subjective feelings of alienation, neglect, low self-esteem and low political efficacy should be taken seriously by social scientists, not so much as individuo-psychic motivations but as socio-psychic norms that may govern the behaviour of non-voters, culminating in what is termed here `political shyness'.

The politically shy are shown to be among the most vulnerable members of our community and it is argued that under a voluntary system political shyness would negatively affect the welfare of these groups. Abstention is a social as well as a political problem because voting may act as a preventative against social isolation and fragmentation and a buffer against economic marginalisation. The ethics of compulsion may therefore be understood, not only as a deontological problem about inalienable rights, but as a teleological problem about inequality and welfare outcomes.

The importance of compulsion is also linked to the centrality of inclusive citizenship to our anticipated republic. Considerable use is made of comparative material; however, at the same time the author is mindful of the fact that such comparisons should be approached with caution, given variations in social conditions and political cultures.

Liberal democratic concerns

Senator Nick Minchin (1996a: 245, 248) has asserted that `compulsory voting is a fundamental breach of ... civil liberties' and that it is `inconsistent with the essence of a free and democratic society to force people to vote'. The claim that compulsion violates the liberal-democratic principles of choice and freedom is without doubt a valid one.(4) But there are, of course, other important principles at stake here, among them: legitimacy, representativeness, political equality and minimisation of elite power, all of which are fundamental democratic ideals. Majority will is central to the notion of democracy, therefore supporters of compulsion argue that the more completely the preferences of the majority are registered, the more democratic the system will be. The issue is generally framed in terms of the importance of complete information; if only part of the electorate votes the decisions of government may lack legitimacy and be constantly open to challenge (Stevens 1984: 61; Johns 1998: 368-9). …

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