With the latest efforts by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to “encourage” more than 1.5 million Australians to get off their asses and on the electoral roll, I have been contemplating the relative benefits and harm of compulsory suffrage. Considering only around 30 countries in the entire world force their citizens to vote (with Singapore and Australia being the only “advanced” countries), should we rethink our policy?
Having grown up in Australia, compulsory suffrage was all I knew for a long time. Until I started reading the news, I had no conception that another system existed. I have many childhood memories of my mother suddenly remembering she has to dash off and vote, ensuring she could prove she was not in the country during an election/ otherwise unable to vote, or even being fined for forgetting entirely. Personally, however, I am now deeply conflicted about which is the best policy.
I don’t believe governments should be in the business of regulating behaviour (except to stop actions that empirically negatively impact other people), and this includes forcing people to vote. Government really has no business involving itself in the “free will” of its citizens, unless completely necessary. In this sense, I am kind of libertarian. It is possible to argue that whether someone votes or not, it has no direct empirical effect on someone else. Furthermore, we have no way of measuring to what extent “donkey votes” (the act of which I have become famous for in my family) affect results, and fining/punishing people for failing to vote can be considered oppressive and even a violation of freedom of speech. And, lastly, isn’t the act of forcing someone to make a decision kind of oxymoronic?
However, as often is the case, there is another side to this equation. Compulsory suffrage ensures a large (if not complete) voter turnout, and therefore the winner is ensured a mandate from a majority. Compulsory suffrage may also lead to increased interest (as people are effectively forced to pick a candidate unless they submit donkey or blank ballots), and force the candidates to appeal to the apolitical and independents who may shun political participation otherwise. In fact, I believe this may be the central argument in favour: political discourse is inevitably improved, as candidates do not have to resort to vitriolic speech or controversial positions in order to “get out the vote” (just compare the Australian political discourse to that of America’s and you will understand). Furthermore, if the government is going to make things like jury duty compulsory, is the simple (and generally quick) act of voting such a massive imposition?
At various times I have taken both sides of this issue with almost equal zeal. There are valid points to both positions, and I would not be unduly disappointed whether the laws in Australia are changed or perpetuated. Right now, largely thanks to my observations of America’s political system, I am undoubtedly leaning towards perpetuation, however, that may change again in the future.