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Compulsory voting is a hugely contentious issue; for its opponents it flies in the face of every principle of democracy, yet for its supporters it is a vital way of engaging the maximum number of citizens in the democratic process. Whilst the theoretical debate about whether forcing people to vote is compatible with democratic principles is interesting, it is meaningless without a discussion of whether compulsory voting actually works. In other words; does compulsory voting considerably raise the level of political awareness amongst a nation’s electorate? If it does, then it seems that concerns about its compatibility with democracy can be overlooked, if it does not then it serves little purpose as a political tool. My experience in Australia so far has led me to the conclusion that compulsory voting is an ineffective policy in terms of encouraging political participation.

Parliament House, Australia. Image: Pixabay
Parliament House, Australia. Image: Pixabay

The first thing to note about compulsory voting is how effective it is in terms of the number of people turning out to vote; in the most recent election 94% of Australians turned out to vote. In the UK, turnout hovers at 60-65%. Not only this, when speaking to other students I frequently heard complaints of people queuing – for hours to cast their ballot; something which anyone who has voted in the UK will be surprised to hear. The fine for abstention is $20; despite being such a small amount, a small financial penalty seems to be enough to get the vast majority of the population voting. At first glance, then, compulsory voting appears to be a highly effective, low-cost method of raising political participation. However, the full story of political participation goes far beyond turning up and casting a vote. Voting means very little unless people have made a conscious decision to vote for a particular party or candidate. Simply ticking a randomly-selected box cannot be counted as true political participation. In order for compulsory voting to be deemed effective, it must encourage people who usually have little interest in politics to begin to engage with political debate and make informed choices.

Unfortunately, compulsory voting of the kind practiced in Australia does little to encourage this; whilst the fine creates a financial incentive to vote, there is still little reason – beyond personal interest – for people to invest a significant amount of time educating themselves about the political system. Unsurprisingly, then, there are many signs of uninformed voting in Australian elections. The first of these is the relatively high number of spoilt ballots. A spoilt ballot is one which cannot be counted because it has been incorrectly filled out, deliberately or accidently, in some way. Examples include selecting too many candidates, writing a message on the paper or scribbling over the ballot. In the last general election in the UK, spoilt ballots made up for 0.3% of votes cast; in Australia, by contrast, the figure was close to 5%. There are several possible explanations for this difference. Australians may simply be much less able at filling out ballot papers than UK citizens. Although the voting system in Australia is marginally more complex – requiring voters to rank candidates – there is no reason to believe that Australians are uniquely unable to fill out a ballot paper.

A more persuasive explanation is that many of these spoilt ballots are protest votes. Whilst in the UK, citizens who are dissatisfied with the selection of candidates on offer can freely choose not to vote, this is not an option for Australians. Most people are not willing to pay $20 to protest against the options available to them and will thus turn up to vote but register their dissatisfaction by writing a message or scribbling on the ballot. In this case, voters are politically engaged enough to realise that they do not want to vote for any of the candidates, and forcing them to turn up and vote only constitutes a waste of time and resources. The final option is that disinterested voters cannot be bothered to even choose a candidate at random and just fill in the ballot with a scribble, or leave it blank, to avoid the $20 fine. In this case, there is no increase in political engagement and forcing these people to turn up is again a waste of resources. It is likely that a combination of the previous two explanations drives the high level of spoilt ballots in Australia; in both cases, forcing these people to vote only contributes to a greater number of spoilt ballots and does nothing to increase substantive engagement in the politics of the state. However, even discounting the 5% spoilt ballots as wasted resources, participation is far higher in Australia than in the UK. If the remaining voters are more engaged as a result of compulsory voting then it should be regarded as a successful policy.

Despite seeming attractive at first glance, compulsory voting is a political mirage

Sadly this is not the case; the Australian electoral system works on a preferential basis, allowing voters to rank candidates. This system opens up the possibility of another form of disinterested voting, more dangerous than a spoilt ballot: donkey voting. Donkey voting refers to the practice of voters ranking candidates in an order which has nothing to do with their preferences; voters may rank candidates from top to bottom, vice versa, or in alphabetical order. Although there is a chance that, for some voters, their preferences genuinely happen to line up in this way, donkey voting is generally seen as a sign of a lack of interest or knowledge on behalf of the voter. It is difficult to estimate the exact proportion of the electorate who cast donkey votes, but it is estimated to be at least 2%. Just as with those who spoil their ballots, voters who donkey vote display no interest in the political system and forcing them to vote does nothing to combat political apathy. In fact, donkey votes are far worse than spoilt ballots because they register as votes for the parties in question. Whilst spoilt ballots are not counted, the preferences expressed in donkey votes are taken to be legitimate votes. Donkey voting therefore leads to parties gaining votes from people who may not even support them. This outcome stands in direct contradiction to the aim of spreading democratic participation.

Voting booths in Melbourne, Image: WikiCommons
Voting booths in Melbourne, Image: WikiCommons

The simple fact is that the kind of person who only votes to avoid a $20 fine is not the kind of person to dedicate time to following the intricacies of political life. This point is made clear by the fact that political apathy in Australia is following in the same footsteps as other Western nations such as the UK and US. Talking to Australians about politics, I get the same sense of despair that is endemic across Western nations. Just as in the UK, people decry an out of touch elite who are failing to address people’s everyday concerns. More worryingly, the populist far right, with its narrative of challenging the status quo, is just as popular in Australia as it is across Europe and America. Despite voting being compulsory, Australians are just as apathetic towards the politics system as their European counterparts and just as likely to turn, uninformed, to the populism of the far right.

Despite seeming attractive at first glance, compulsory voting is a political mirage. Unexamined, it appears to massively increase political participation, forcing citizens to take in interest in politics. Yet on closer inspection, compulsory voting does very little to combat the underlying apathy of citizens. Political engagement is far more than casting a vote; it involves taking an interest in the politics of the nation, formulating opinions on how the world should be and voting according to these principles. Australia’s negative system of punishment for non-voting does nothing to encourage this approach. Only a positive approach which makes politics relevant to people’s lives can foster the kind of substantive interest in politics that is vital for meaningful democratic participation.

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