One of the best features of Australian elections is the high voter turnout. This has been achieved by compulsory voting. The LNP in Queensland is now moving to abolish it in the state in which it was first established, by a Tory government, in 1914. This must not be allowed to go uncontested, like so much else that is happening in Queensland.
Compulsory voting has been a distinctive, positive and successful feature of Australian democracy for the best part of a century (1924 in Federal elections). It is deeply embedded in our political culture and custom. It makes elections by far the most majestic of all our national events – the only occasion on which every Australian adult participates in exactly the same way, on equal terms, for the highest common purpose – the election of a democratic government. It is a unique affirmation of the equality of every Australian citizen and of the inclusiveness of our society, immensely important in a nation of immigrants. It embodies the civic obligation as well as the entitlement that comes with the right to vote.
For more than two hundred years, the struggle for parliamentary democracy has been about enlarging the franchise. The Holy Grail of democracy has always been ‘one person, one vote; one vote, one value’. Anti-democrats have sought to restrict the franchise, usually through property, educational, gender or racial qualifications. The move against compulsory voting is a disguised form of voter restriction. The argument that compulsory voting pulls in the apathetic, the ill-informed, the uneducated, the unintelligent, has been used to resist every extension of the franchise, including votes for women.
A high participation rate in genuinely contested elections is the universally recognised sign of a healthy democracy. Low turnouts are causing anxiety in democracies world-wide. Low turnouts undermine the legitimacy of the result. The polarisation of the American electorate along special interest and race lines is leading to a denial that the Presidential result represents the ‘real’ people or the true Americans. But the real problem in the United States is not the comparatively high turnout of blacks or Latinos in support of Obama but the low turnout of voters generally.
Compulsory voting reduces the possibility of voter fraud and impersonation. It is a cruel irony that some states in the United States are invoking ‘fraud’ as a reason for tougher identification laws when the real purpose is to make voting more difficult for disadvantaged groups, specifically blacks.
The low and declining turnout now occurring in all countries without compulsory voting makes it easier to disguise fraud. It can be used to mask discrepancies between the declared vote and pre-election opinion polls. It can be used to explain away otherwise inexplicable variations in the turnout between regimes. It can be used to cover the destruction or theft of ballot papers. This electoral corruption occurs on a massive scale in Russian presidential elections, facilitated by low voter turnout. The high level of public confidence in the integrity of the ballot in Australia is a direct result of compulsory voting and the high voter turnout which it produces.
The low turnouts now endemic in the Western democracies increase the influence of pressure groups, lobbies, single-issue parties and special interests. In the US, the power of the gun lobby rests almost entirely on its ability to mobilise, or threaten to mobilise, its supporters against sitting members of Congress. That is why gun control measures with overwhelming popular support fail to pass Congress. The Tea Party’s power over the Republican Party derives from its threat to knock off main-stream Republicans in low turnout (and gerrymandered) elections.
In the Australian context, the abolition of compulsory voting would increase the power of the party machines. If ‘getting out to vote’ were to become the overriding function of election campaigns, the parliamentary leadership would become even more dependent upon the central machines.
In the final analysis, my case for compulsory voting rests on the assertion that the highest possible voter turnout is a great public good in itself and for itself. The custom of a century has made the compulsion almost nominal. But Australia’s high voting performance would not survive its abolition by ten years.
Graham Freudenberg, December 2013