Give me liberty or give me… $20

There was a minor moment on the twitters on Monday that caught my eye. Simon Breheny of the IPA said: “…if we want Australia to be the most democratic country that it can possibly be then we want for Australia to implement voluntary voting”. This led me to reflect on my own experience of the democratic process and the arguments for and against compulsory voting.

Firstly some background for non-Australians. Australia has Federal, State and Local levels of government and holds elections for each. The actual voting system used in Australia is a complex preferential voting system – especially for federal and state upper house seats. Here is a picture of the NSW upper house ballot paper held by Anthony “Mr Election” Green – he could have chosen to wear it and not put his modesty at risk.

Voting is compulsory. If you do not show up to vote then you are fined $20. While in theory you must cast a valid vote, as we shall see, a significant number of people do not do so and face no sanction as a consequence.

I spent my formative years in the UK where voting is voluntary so I was initially bemused by the Australian practice. I had a few conversations with Australians about this and I have formed my own opinions on the matter – which I will explore by examining some data and some questionable claims.

First the data. While voting is compulsory in Australia, it is not the case that 100% of Australian citizens contribute to the electoral outcome (as in many nations, most non-citizens cannot vote). Those that don’t fall into 3 categories:

So the actual “contribution” figure is around 80% – which is less than many of the figures that are bandied about. However voting is in Australia is more of a “thing” than in many other developed countries. And it really is a “thing”. Moving more into the realm of personal anecdote, voting in Australia is a norm. The penalty is relatively small – yes, for some people $20 is a big deal but not for most. And yet large numbers of Australians will go to their local polling booth, run the flyer gauntlet, do the voting thing and then exit via the sausage sizzle. It doesn’t hurt that election day is always a Saturday. But the $20 is about more than $20. This is something that is signaled as a responsibility that you as a citizen undertake as well as a right that you enjoy. And on some level, most people acknowledge that.

And now on to the questionable claims. Following on from Simon Breheny’s word-blast, I visited the IPA’s website to see what this was all about. The IPA* have published a number of articles on the topic of voluntary voting but this one written by James Paterson (now a senator) seems to the most involved. It’s an odd piece of writing. Lets break it down.

  • It begins with a poll that is admirably honest – most Australians do not have a strong desire to change the status quo.
  • It then mentions “democratic coercion”. For libertarians, compulsory voting is an example of unnecessary state power and therefore illegitimate. As a philosophical position, it straight-forward and consistent. However, agreeing to it is dependent on sharing that position. Given that the aforementioned poll indicates that most people do not share this position, then more arguments are required.
  • The first such argument is one that I partially agree with. I have seen no compelling evidence that compulsory voting encourages civic engagement. However, neither have I seen compelling evidence that voluntary voting encourages civic engagement. Civic engagement is a red herring for both sides.
  • Next it is claimed that a switch to voluntary voting would not impact voter turnout. This is were the article starts to go off the rails – but we have to wait a paragraph or two for that to fully play out. For now, let me say that I agree that our turnout is already below 90% (see above) but the evidence is that voter turnout would drop. My unscientific view is that we’d probably lose an additional 10% (down to about 70%) to end up somewhere between New Zealand and the UK. We might end up at that level with compulsory voting still in place.
  • It is now that things get truly odd. Having argued that voluntary voting will not significantly decrease turnout, the next few arguments are dependent on… voluntary voting significantly decreasing turnout (or at least threatening to). The basic argument as I understand it is that the current system leads to a focus on marginal seats at the expense of safe seats and pork-barrelling around those seats. There is a wealth of evidence that this goes on. However I have not seen compelling evidence that switching to voluntary voting solves this problem. Pateron admits that we “see pork barrelling in countries with voluntary voting” but claims that it is less. What is frustrating about this claim is the lack of evidence to support it. As far as I can see, the phenomenon of safe and marginal seats is a function of which groups are within a specific electoral boundaries. If you want to break up these patterns then voluntary voting seems an ineffective way of doing it. Likewise the notion that voluntary voting would solve pork-barrelling seems to be hopelessly optimistic. If you want to solve that problem then the Grattan Institute’s suggestions are probably a good start. Again safe/marginal seats and pork-barrelling are red herrings (and yes, metaphors are getting mixed but I can totally imagine a pork / herring barrel being a thing in Sweden).
  • Underpinning all this seems to be a belief that having fewer people involved in the democratic process is better. If only we could get rid of those pesky light-weight, middle-ground, floating voters. Then parties could focus on their bases – i.e. politics nerds. It would be politics for politicians. How awesome would that be.

Our democracy does have problems. However I don’t see voluntary voting solving those problems nor do I want to pretend that it will to undergird otherwise unconvincing arguments.

*Note – the IPA has nothing to do with IPA. These are Melbourne gents in nice suits, not tattooed hipsters knee deep in hops and malt.

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