“Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free”. This is the opening stanza of our national anthem, an anthem that infers to the rest of the world that we, as Australians, enjoy the luxury of living in a free, democratically led country. It is incorrigible to me that in this day and age where people pride themselves on being globally aware and democratically charged that few have realised that the very real and undemocratic process of compulsory voting is not only alive and well upon the shores of our great country, but accepted and sanctioned as a civic responsibility.
Not only do we as a country continue to employ the practice of compulsory voting, we take it that one step further by making it an offence, punishable by financial penalty, should an individual choose not to exercise their right to vote and turn up to the electoral booth on election day and have their name marked off the voting register. As the Director of the Australian Electoral Commission, Mr Tim Evans points out, of the thirty-two (32) countries currently using the system of compulsory voting, nineteen (19) of them, with the inclusion of Australia, pursue it through enforcement of some form. The continuation of enforcing compulsory voting relegates us as a nation to draw electoral comparisons with developing nations such as Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru. Alignment with these countries in regards to political practices makes Australia appear out of step with the majority of the world, or at the very least the industrialised world. The very premise of a truly democratic society is defined not only by its party structure, constitution, delegation of authority, or electoral representation, but by its capacity to tolerate and incorporate dissent (Irving, Louis and Suchlicki, Jaime, 1988, p430.)
The very idea of a democratic country suggests that its people are afforded the fundamental human rights, which social democrats emphasising the importance of three (3) central values, these being equality, freedom, and fellowship. (Mullaly, Bob, 2007,p.122). Honorary Senator Nick Minchin encapsulated the antiquated notion of compulsory voting in his address to the Samuel Griffith Society, stating “Compulsory voting is an embarrassment in a nation like ours, which is otherwise a shining light of democracy and civil liberty in a world still darkened by authoritarian rule in so many countries”. By insisting an individual vote, and penalising them if they do not vote, is a blatant denial of an individuals right to decide whether or not to cast a vote. Honorary Senator Nick Minchin further addresses this reality by stating “The overwhelming majority of the world’s democracies uphold and protect their citizen’s legal right to choose whether or not to vote, a right we are denied in Australia. How did we come to such a sorry state?”. While many may argue that proposing the abolishment of compulsory voting based on a perceived breach of human rights is flimsy at best, it must be recognised that more often than not, these rights have been the result of countless lengthy and arduous battles (Ife, Jim, 2009, p.116) by generations before us that we can now safely lay claim to said rights, with a more than reasonable expectation that these rights will be recognised and respected.
The age old saying “familiarity breeds contempt” also springs to mind when broaching the issue of compulsory voting with anything but an acquiescent opinion of the practice. The mere fact that compulsory voting has been so widely embraced by the current party system is itself a good argument for changing it. Anything which might shake up the parties and turn their concerns towards gaining the support of the community and their supporters rather than with the perpetuation of the extremely undemocratic and elitist preselection systems that are currently exploited would surely be beneficial to all concerned (McGuinness, Padraic, 1995), the clear winner being the Australian public.
The question of whether or not abolishing compulsory voting would result in fewer people attending the voting polls, consequently providing a result that did not incorporate the majority rules standpoint. This issue is examined in detail in the paper “It’s an Evil Thing to Oblige People to Vote”. This paper states that in the elections that were studied as part of this paper, the interesting thing is that the trio concluded that the same government would have been elected under either a compulsory voting system or a voluntary voting system. Honorary Senator Nick Minchin touches on this theory in his address of The Samuel Griffith Society when he said “Supporters of compulsion cite public opinion polls which do indicate popular support for compulsory voting. In my view such polls reflet two factors. Most people quite properly think we should exercise our right to vote; but most people think their fellow Australians would not bother to vote if it were not compulsory. I am saddened that Australians take such a dim view of their countrymen, and have such little attachment to liberty”.
The phenomenon of the ‘donkey vote’ must also be taken into consideration when discussing the usefulness of compulsory voting. A Donkey vote by definition occurs when an elector simply numbers the ballot paper from top to bottom (or bottom to top) without regard to the logic of the preference allocation (australianpolitics.com) Donkey votes are typically cast by uninterested voters, protesting voters or voters ignorant about voting system (Wikipedia, 2009)
Idyllically in a democracy a person should be free to partake in the political and electoral processes whenever he or she wants to, and ignore it equally without having to account to government or courts. Just as the right to free speech entails the right to silence, so the right to vote must imply the right to abstain (McGuinness, Padraic, 1995). An individual’s right to vote or not is best encapsulated by famous Russian born American writer and novelist Ayn Rands when she said
Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by the majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).
Australian Politics. Donkey Votes. Retrieved September 11,2009 from http://www.australianpolitics.com/elections/features/donkey.shtml
Chong. D, S. Davidson and T. Fry (2005) It’s an Evil Thing to Oblige People to Vote. The Centre for Independent Studies. Retrieved August 16, 2009 from www.cis.org.au/POLICY/summer05-06/polsumm0506-2.htm
Evans, T. (2006) Compulsory Voting in Australia. Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved August 16, 2009 from www.aec.gov.au/voting/compulsory_voting.pdf
Ife, J. (2001). Revised ed. Human Rights and Social Work Towards Rights-Based Practice. P116. Cambridge University Press.
Irving, Louise Horowitz and Jaime Suchlicki (1988). 9th ed. Cuban Communism
Hague, Rod and Martin Harrop. (2001). 5th ed. Comparative Government and Politics An Introduction. Palgrave
Minchin, N. (2003) Chapter 8: Voluntary Voting. The Samuel Griffith Society. Retrieved August 16, 2009 from www.samuelgriffith.org.au/papers/html/volume15/v15chap8.html
McGuinness, Padraic, (1999) The Case Against Compulsory Voting. Retrieved September 11, 2009 from http://www.mind-trek.com/writ-dtf/votehoax/p-mcguin.htm
Mullaly, B., (2007). 3rd ed. The New Structural Social Work. P122. Oxford University Press.
Wikipedia. Donkey Vote. Retrieved September 11,2009 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donkey_vote