The Impact of Compulsory Voting in Australia
The Compulsory Voting System
For more than eight decades, Australia adopted the Compulsory Voting (CV) system for all its citizens during election period. Such system requires all citizens from age 18 and above to register to vote and go to a polling place to cast their vote during the election period. (whatisAbout.com). It has been known as Australia’s electoral institution, “a long standing rarity among the world’s democracies, that has helped push turnout in Australian federal elections well above 90 percent since its introduction in 1924, a level unparalleled among the world’s mature democracies” (Jackman, 1997, p.
Since it was adopted, voter turnout at the Australian elections has never fallen below 90% — which meant that it had high level of participation in the elections (Evans, 2006). This caused more than 30% difference compared to prior elections that did not require mandatory voting (Jackman, n.d.). Evans (2006) stressed this as one importance of adopting the system in the electoral process, since it is a civic duty comparable to other obligations to the country such as taxation, education, jury duty, among others.
In this regard, about 9.6 percent of the world population were noted to be using the system in determining their form of government (Evans, 2006). There are about 24 countries, which have some form of CV but unlike in Australia, these do not subject to punitive measures those particularly who are unable to vote on Election Day (Jackman, n.d.). The Australian citizens are subject to fines, community service or imprisonment for non-compliance to vote. These penalties can however be waived if they will be able to present “valid and sufficient” excuse for not casting their vote as required (Jackman, n.d.).
Though compulsory, the Australian Electoral Commission provides several options for the citizens to be able to comply with the system – postal voting, pre-poll voting, absent voting, voting at Australian overseas missions and voting at mobile teams at hospitals and nursing homes and in remote localities, as well as ordinary voting at a polling place in their electorate (Evans, 2006).
The Consequences of Complying with the System
Various arguments have been raised for and against the CV system, leading for other countries who have been practising it to abolish and/or modify the system by altering the punitive measures applied for non-compliance (Wikipedia Encyclopedia). These were based on the results of the previous federal elections that indicated the variation in the mandatory versus voluntary voting as well as the social behaviour of the citizens towards voting.
Upon instituting the Compulsory Voting System in Australia, it has been noted that nine elections later resulted to an average of 94.6% voter turnout compared to the 64.2% voter turnout prior to its implementation (Jackman, n.d.). Likewise, it has been noted that ‘non-compliance penalties offset the costs of electoral participation, effectively attaching a cost to not turning out and thereby overcoming the fact that turnout is a low benefit activity for many citizens’ (Lijphart, 1997 as noted by Jackman, n.d.).
There were cross-national studies that show diverse results for adopting CV or abolishing the system. In countries where CV was abolished in the electoral process, lesser turnout has been observed, dropping to 10% (Jackman, n.d.). Jackman likewise indicated that the removal of fines for non-compliance, particularly like what happened in Venezuela, caused an average of 30% turnout fall. However, in Austria, where some provinces did not adopt the CV system in the electoral process, there was a minimal difference of voter turnout (Jackman, n.d.). With these, it has been concluded that the effects of the CV were “conditional on baseline levels of electoral participation – i.e., CV is likely to have bigger impacts on turnout when other factors predispose a country to low turnout and vice versa” (Hirczy, 1994 as noted by Jackman, n,d,).
Since the Australian Government retained the system up to the present times, it indicated that the compulsory voting has not been opposed by the Australian citizens, who might be having a positive relationship with the State (Hill, n.d.). This may be due to the fact that the Australians have regarded voting as a normal part of their political culture and viewed the state in “quasi-idealist terms as a benign provider of goods rather than an unwelcome imposer of restrictions” (Hill, n.d.). It was even noted in a minority report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in 1997 that there was no evidence of a public upsurge exclaiming for voluntary voting instead of mandatory voting, and that such move raised by the opponents of the system was assumed for a partisan self-interest, especially if it was raised right after the conduct of the 1996 Australian federal election (Jackman, 1997). It was noted rather that there has been evidence that CV had a strong popular support during that time, which about 74 percent of the survey respondents affirmed the upholding of CV at federal elections (Evans, 2006). Furthermore, Prime Minister John Howard announced in 2005 that CV will still be adopted at the next federal election since there are a number of supporters particularly from the government vying for a status quo, aside from the fact there is no justification for altering the current system (Peatling, 2005).
Proponents of the CV system argued that a parliament elected by a compulsory vote reflected the will of the majority of the electorate, since in a voluntary system, the turnout could vary from one electorate to another (Evans, 2006).
Moreover, Jackman (n.d.) noted the various implications of a mandatory system of voting, to wit:
1. There were comparative studies showing the relationship between the socio-economic status and voter turnout weakens as the latter increases. This means that an increase in the electoral participation disregards the socioeconomic differences of the voters, implying the equal rights for all citizens.
2. This also relates the partisan and ideological implications. Since it diminishes the socioeconomic differences, CV likewise diminishes the socioeconomic biases which are relative to the extent of support towards a political party. Hence, this results in “higher welfare spending and more state interventions in the macroeconomy and labour markets. With this, the policy agendas are hereby redirected.
Australians have seen further the benefits of the CV, as noted by the early governments in the 2001 research paper from the Australian Parliamentary Library, that is, voluntary systems make the poor and marginalized citizens as non-voters compared to the mandatory voting for all that equalizes the citizens’ rights, whether belonging to the wealthy or poor clan (Barns, 2004).
This can be related to Jackman’s (1997) conclusion that there is no empirical evidence on relating the change in the voting system from voluntary to mandatory or vice versa that would favour any political party. However though, these political parties would behave differently if the voting system would be voluntary (Evans, 2006).
There is likewise no way of determining whether the election returns were correctly completed by the voters themselves which may be due to some other factors, if it is some form of protest against the system or against the government (Evans, 2006). Evans further pointed out that because of such incidents, these may increase the number of incomplete votes such as the ‘donkey votes’ and informal votes, thus diminishing the quality of votes and thereby the result of the electoral process as a whole. In fact, in the 2001 federal election of the Australian House of Representatives, about 64 percent of the votes were considered informal, which may be due to misinterpretation of the electoral laws or merely ‘a deliberate act of civil disobedience’ either against the system or on any other matter (Evans, 2006). Evans further noted that the “minor parties are obvious beneficiaries of the CV… since they provide an alternative for voters dissatisfied with Australia’s major parties, but compelled to vote.” Hence, leading to the form of government preferred by the voters.
Lack of awareness on politics, including those with little interest are being forced to the polls, and so argued by the opponents of the CV (WhatisAbout.com). However, this has been clarified by the Australian Electoral Commission, referring to one case wherein one voter refused to vote because he had no preference over any political candidates then, to wit
“… However much the elector may say he has no personal preference for any candidate, that none of them will suit him, he is not asked that question nor required to express by his vote that opinion. He is asked to express a preference amongst those who are available for election. That is to state which of them, if he must have one or more of them as Parliamentary representatives, as he must, to mark down his vote in an order of preference of them.” (Stated by then Chief Justice Barwick, Electoral Backgrounder no. 17).
This may be due to the fact that though coming to the polls and cast their votes are mandatory, their decision making on who to vote is still not manipulated by any political party, and the voters are given enough time to know the political candidates and make their preferences (Jackman, 1997).
However, should the non-voter present valid and sufficient reason for doing so (e.g., equal disapproval of political candidates), the Australian Electoral Commission would weigh the circumstances to measure its validity. Once proven valid and sufficient, there is a possibility that the penalty would be waived (Electoral Backgrounder no. 17).
On the other hand, Krasa and Polborn (2005), after examining the comparative effects of different types of social decision making, concluded that “costly voting induces suboptimal equilibrium participation and frequently leads to wrong choices.” The study indicated that should the citizens be provided with incentives after voting, it would probably increase the quality of electoral decisions and social welfare of the country.
Krasa and Polborn further related voting to providing public good to the citizens and stressed that “an individual citizen who becomes informed and (then) votes increases the quality of public decisions for all his compatriots. Thus, recommending to subsidize the voters rather than impose tax on them.
Similarly, adopting CV lead the socially-advantaged to have greater interest in investing in broad public education, as the socially disadvantaged happens to have greater influence on public policy, thereby, lifting the standard of public education and creating a greater sense of national solidarity (wikipedia encyclopedia).
Barns, G. 2004. Compulsory Voting means ignoring Election Day is not an option. Commentary in Seattle Post Intelligencer. Retrieved 30 May 2006. http://www.seattlepi.nwsource.com/opinion/200837_compulsoryvoting24.html
Compulsory Voting. In WhatisAbout.com? www.gegraphy.about.com/library/weekly/aa060100a.htm
Evans, T. 2006. Compulsory Voting in Australia. Australian Electoral Commission. www.aec.gov.au/_content/what/voting/compulsory_voting.pdf
Hill, L. (undated). Compulsory Voting as a Democratic Innovation. Retrieved 25 May 2006. http://pchoice.anu.edu.au/Hill.html
Jackman, S. (undated). Compulsory Voting, as published in the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Retrieved 25 May 2006. http://www.jackman.standford.edu/papers/cv.pdf
Jackman, S. 1997. Non-Compulsory Voting in Australia?: what surveys can (and can’t) tell us. http://www.polmeth.wustl.edu/retrieve.php?id=399
Krasa, S. and Polborn M. 2005. Is Mandatory Voting Better than Voluntary Voting? http://www.econ.uiuc.edu/~skrasa/voting_january_2005.pdf
Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia, www.wikipedia.org
Peatling, S. 2005. Howard rejects calls to end compulsory voting. In the Sydney Morningn Herald, October 5, 2005. http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/howard-rejects-calls-to-end-compulsory-voting/2005/10/04/1128191720202.html
Compulsory Voting. Electoral Backgrounder no. 17, August 2004. www.aec.gov.au/_content/How/backgrounders/17/EB_17_Compulsory_Voting.pdf
 ‘Donkey votes’ are incomplete ballots that are considered bad votes and do not get counted. Informal votes are ballots not marked according to the rules and regulations of the electoral system. (WhatisAbout.com)
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