FactCheck Q&A: how unusual is compulsory voting, and do 90% of New Zealanders vote without it?

Was new Senator Derryn Hinch right about voter turnout in New Zealand? Q&A, Author provided

The Conversation is fact-checking claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9:35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email.


Excerpt from Q&A July 11, 2016 – watch from 0:43.

I’m against – totally opposed to compulsory voting, always have been… We only have it in Australia and in Belgium. It’s not compulsory in New Zealand or Canada or the United States or even the UK, where we follow the Westminster system of government… in New Zealand, 90% of New Zealanders vote. – Senator-elect Derryn Hinch, speaking on Q&A, July 11, 2016.

The issue of compulsory voting cropped up on Q&A, when Senator-elect Derryn Hinch said he was totally opposed to it.

Was Hinch right to say that voting is only compulsory in Australia and Belgium, and that in New Zealand – where voting is voluntary – the voter turnout is 90%?

Checking the source

When asked by The Conversation for sources to support his assertion, Hinch said:

I accept it was (only) 80% in NZ in 2014. I was discussing the issue on Monday morning with my NZ brother, a former school principal, who was here to help me with the campaign. He said, “Back home, where voting is not compulsory, the participation rate gets as high as 90%.” I recall seeing that figure when researching a court defence for not voting several years ago. Don’t know exactly where I read it.

We can test Hinch’s original statement independently against publicly available evidence.

Are Australia and Belgium the only countries to use compulsory voting?

No. Compulsory voting also exists (with varying degrees of enforcement) in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, France (Senate elections only), Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nauru, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Singapore, Switzerland (one canton only), Thailand, Turkey and Uruguay.

Do 90% of New Zealanders vote?

No, not any more. New Zealand has not experienced turnout of registered voters in the range of 90% since the 1980s. Its turnout now hovers in the mid to high seventies and has been in gradual decline for some time.

Statistics New Zealand

In Australia, more than 93% of registered voters show up to vote.

In 1996, New Zealand introduced a mixed member proportional system – meaning the number of seats a party has in parliament will be mostly a reflection of the proportion of votes it gets.

It was hoped that this reform would help arrest turnout decline but evidently it did not. Voter turnout in New Zealand has continued to decline since the change, falling from about 88% in 1996 to about 77% in 2014.

Is it fair to compare New Zealand’s voter turnout with Australia’s?

Comparing Australia with New Zealand is problematic for a number of other reasons.

Although New Zealand has a voluntary voting system, enrolment is effectively compulsory in New Zealand.

New Zealand abolished its upper house in 1951 and now has a single house of parliament. This set up is called “unicameralism”. Australia is “bicameral”, meaning it has both an upper house and a lower house.

While Australia has a federal structure (meaning it has states that form a federation), New Zealand has a unitary structure (meaning it is a whole, with no states).

Research suggests that unicameral and unitary systems can make voters feel that their voting choices are more consequential, which can stimulate voter turnout.

Overall, New Zealand’s political culture is more intimate and less fragmented than Australia’s. In Australia, political identities are split and the political focus divided by federalism and a geographically dispersed population. New Zealand, by contrast, has a small and geographically concentrated population, another factor that research suggests stimulates turnout.

Even in the period before the introduction of compulsory voting in Australia, New Zealand’s turnout rate consistently outstripped Australia’s by, on average, 20%.

In other words, New Zealanders have always been more inclined to vote than Australians. Australia’s voter turnout levels could well be much lower than New Zealand’s if Australia made voting voluntary. Some research suggests voter turnout may fall to around 60% if compulsory voting ended in Australia.

Verdict

It’s not true to say that “we only have [compulsory voting] in Australia and in Belgium”. Compulsory voting also exists with varying degrees of enforcement in several other countries.

It’s also incorrect to say that in New Zealand, 90% of New Zealanders vote. Voter turnout at the 2014 election in New Zealand was closer to 77%. It hasn’t been in the range of 90% since the mid-1980s. – Lisa Hill


Review

This is a fair and accurate FactCheck. Senator-elect Hinch’s assertion that, in regard to compulsory voting, “we only have it in Australia and in Belgium” was incorrect. And in regard to New Zealand’s voter turnout rate, his figure of 90% is well out of date.

While it is compulsory to register on the electoral roll in New Zealand, it is not compulsory to vote. Recent figures estimate that 90% are registered. Of those registered to vote, 77% voted in 2014, the last general election, slightly up from a record low of 74% in 2011. Turnout rates are lower among younger age-groups – and they are lower for Maori, compared with non-Maori, at all age-groups.

It is fair to note the significant differences between the Australian and New Zealand electoral systems. Caution is needed before making comparisons. New Zealand does have characteristics that could be expected to sustain very high voter turnouts. The introduction of proportional representation in 1996 was followed by a “one-off” increase in turnout. The long-term downward trend since the 1984 election is therefore a significant concern for representative democracy in New Zealand. It was a widely debated issue in the media leading up to the 2014 election. – Grant Duncan


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