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Australia continues to enjoy voter turnout levels that are the envy of voluntary-voting regimes the world over. AAP/Lukas Coch

Election explainer: why do I have to vote, anyway?

Before too long Australians will be heading off to the polls. As usual there will be complaints from those who object to being required to vote when the majority of Western democracies remain voluntary.

Yet almost of all those voluntary settings are battling escalating turnout decline and, with it, the slow death of representative democracy. Australians continue to enjoy turnout levels that are the envy of voluntary-voting regimes the world over.

Why have compulsory voting?

Australia has one of the oldest systems of compulsory voting. Queensland was the first Australian state to introduce it in 1914, but voting did not become compulsory at the federal level until 1924.

Compulsory voting was adopted to tackle the problem of low voter turnout. At the time, it hovered below 60%.

It turned out to be an extremely decisive and well-accepted remedy. After its introduction, turnout surged dramatically to more than 90% of registered voters. It has stayed that way ever since.

Compulsory voting can therefore improve turnout by up to 30 percentage points. Conversely, when a well-established democratic system abandons it, turnout drops steeply by between 20 and 30 percentage points, as happened recently in Chile.

Critics of compulsory voting often claim there are equally effective, voluntary means for raising voter turnout. But compulsory voting is the only really reliable and decisive means for keeping turnout high. And its effect is immediate.

There are several sound reasons for requiring people to vote.

When everyone votes, governments are more legitimate. People tend to think of democracy as a constitutional form but, really, it is an activity constituted by the political participation of citizens. Unless it is performed it only exists in theory.

There are many ways of performing democracy. But voting is the most-consequential and, arguably, least-demanding method, especially in well-run systems such as Australia’s. Through voting, we sign up to the political community and enter into a partnership with other members so that together we can constitute democracy as it is meant to be:

Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Because the one-vote one-value principle is embodied in democratic practice and ensured through almost-complete participation, voting in Australia is one of the few activities that allow us to express our equality with other citizens and to exercise our interests equally in self-government and self-protection.

This is why participation should be universal. If only a few participate, the political community is only partially and lopsidedly constituted. All must join with all, not some with some, especially when that “some” turns out to be the prosperous and well-educated as is invariably the case in voluntary systems.

Does compulsory voting do any good?

Compulsory voting regimes have lower levels of corruption.

They also have higher levels of satisfaction with the way democracy is working than do voluntary systems. In compulsory voting regimes – where just about everybody votes – government attention and spending is more evenly distributed across social classes.

More evenly distributed government attention means more even wealth distribution. As a result, compulsory voting settings enjoy lower levels of wealth inequality. It is no coincidence that when compulsory voting was first introduced in Australia there was a dramatic increase in pension spending. When everyone votes, governments are more representative.

Some say compulsory voting causes the electoral process to be clogged with too many incompetent and ignorant voters who vote “badly”. Higher turnout, they say, brings a higher proportion of informal and “donkey” votes that distort electoral outcomes.

Some claim that high turnout elections are characterised by a higher proportion of voters who are incapable of even voting in their own interests.

With regard to the last claim, high levels of turnout actually correlate with governments that are more responsive to the needs and priorities of the entire electorate.

That is, governments are more representative and therefore more democratic when everyone votes. So, somehow or other, poorer and less-well-educated voters, no matter how badly they perform on political knowledge surveys, do seem to know what they are doing.

How bad is the ‘bad voting’ problem in Australia?

Informal voting tends to be higher in compulsory voting regimes. This is because people whose first language isn’t English, less-well-educated, and poorer members of the electorate have been brought into the voting process.

These electors, while clear about how they want to vote, have a hard time casting a valid ballot due to factors associated with their disadvantage.

Yet these informal votes do little harm because they are not counted. Therefore, they are incapable of distorting outcomes.

Also, the donkey vote – where voters mindlessly number their ballots from top to bottom or in reverse – only accounts for around 1% of total votes cast in Australia. This is actually lower than in many systems where voting is voluntary such as the US, where the figure has been estimated at between 2% and 4%.

Compelling people to vote seems to increase their political knowledge. This is partly because voters choose to inform themselves when they know they have to vote and partly because the voting process “imparts incidental knowledge”. And it causes that knowledge to be spread more evenly throughout the citizenry.

Without compulsory voting, Australian democracy would look very different. Turnout would likely drop to around 60% or lower and governments would be less representative. There would be lower levels of satisfaction with the political system. The electorate would be less politically informed. We would also have greater wealth inequality and more corruption.

In any case, the majority (more than 70%) of Australians approve of compulsory voting – and have done so for decades. The nay-sayers continue to be a minority.

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