Turnout and voluntary voting


I’ve been having a debate this afternoon with Sam Clifford of Public Polity over Twitter about the role of low turnout in the performance of the British National Party in the European Parliament election, the value of compulsory voting and how this all interacts. Sam wrote a post at Public Polity pointing out how a combination of proportional representation and low turnout tends to help far-right parties (although I would question the universality of that statement, I admit it did help the BNP in England yesterday).

I disputed the value of compulsory voting in dealing with issues of low voter turnout. Unlike most people I know who are actively interested in Australian politics, I actually think that compulsory voting is a bad thing, and treats a symptom of political dysfunction while hiding the real problem.

First of all, let’s look at the facts regarding the BNP’s performance in the UK yesterday. It’s true that turnout was very depressed across the UK and the European Union, with 43% turnout continent-wide and much lower in the UK. Indeed, in both North-West England and Yorkshire and the Humber, the BNP won more raw votes in 2004 than in 2009, but lower turnout resulting in a smaller number of votes producing a winning result. It appears that, rather than the expenses scandal and general disillusionment driving Labour voters into the hands of the BNP, they mostly stayed home giving the BNP more bang for their buck. It’s also worth putting the result in its own perspective: the BNP won two seats out of 72 UK electorates in a Parliament of 736. The result puts them in no sort of position of influence or balance of power, and they are not at the moment part of any European parliament group which would give them resources. They only polled 6.2% and are still not in with a credible chance of winning seats in the House of Commons.

It’s also worth recognising that, in spite of all the howling from British political figures about the great shame on their country in having neofascists as elected representatives, they are hardly the first. Parties like the Flemish Bloc, the Pym Fortun List, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the French National Front, the Italian National Alliance, the Austrian Freedom Party and many other neofascist parties have performed much more strongly in the past than the BNP, not to mention Australia’s own One Nation. Ultranationalist parties have a place in a political system, like any other party. As long as there are racists and bigots in a society, some of them will form a political party and run for office.

Arguments have been pushed that the European proportional representation system allowed the BNP to win representation. Of course it is true that PR allowed the BNP to win seats in the European Parliament they would have otherwise not won, it’s worth remembering that the BNP have won many council seats in England, where all councils are elected by first past the post. Furthermore, I would argue that the UK’s system of first-past-the-post has encouraged the phenomenom where England’s north has been abandoned by the Conservatives and taken for granted by Labour, allowing voters to feel disillusioned and turn to the BNP or drop out of the system. If you assume that some BNP voters turn to the party out of frustration that their voices aren’t heard by Westminster, it seems perverse to prefer electoral systems that ensure that these people’s concerns are well-founded, rather than dealing with them. The attitude to PR and the BNP seems to be “if these people feel disenfranchised, we better make sure that their votes don’t make a difference”.

Sam also made the argument that non-compulsory voting allowed the BNP to win by allowing much lower turnout levels. While this is true in the short term, I argue that compulsory voting covers up political dysfunction in a society and encourages political parties to ignore their own bases.

It seems that faith in compulsory voting is a cornerstone of our civic religion in Australia. It is seen as just as essential to our representative democracy as the secret ballot and universal suffrage. It is very hard to find people in political parties and the media who openly question compulsory voting, even within alternative parties like the Greens. I originally thought like that before being challenged by a New Zealand Greens MP, Nandor Tanczos, in 2005 to explain why compulsory voting was actually a good policy. We in Australia seem to have been taken in by the idea that anyone who does not vote is failing in their duty to our democracy, which seems a very odd thing for people to believe in such a laidback country as Australia.

I believe that voluntary voting is a preferable model for two main reasons which relate to the importance of variable levels of turnout. Firstly, election turnout is an important barometer of dysfunction in a political system and disillusionment with government, the state, the electoral system and political parties. Where you feel that your vote does not matter because you genuinely don’t care about which party wins, or you know your vote won’t count because you live in a safe seat, or where you don’t believe that the representatives you are electing will have any real power to make change, then it is perfectly rational and reasonable to not vote. Low turnout in the European Parliament reflected the reality that MEPs of all parties are distant from their constituents and that the European Parliament, despite the interesting exercise of the  European election process and its role as the only truly democratic body in the EU, remains largely powerless in comparison to other EU bodies. Low turnout in the European election reflects the need to rectify the democratic deficit in the EU. Until that is rectified, European politicians don’t deserve the extra legitimacy that comes with a high turnout.

Likewise, countries with electoral systems that make every vote count tend to have much higher levels of voter turnout, with turnout on the European mainland in national elections much higher than in Canada, the UK and the United States. I tend to think that if Australia abolished compulsory voting, we would fall somewhere between New Zealand and the United States, as we have a proportional Senate and preference voting ensures more votes count (although this only really applies in marginal seats).

Compulsory voting hides the disillusionment and dysfunction that is endemic in Australia’s political system. Forcing unwilling voters to the polls only hides one symptom of this dysfunction, it does not cure the disease. If we want people to vote, we should encourage them by implementing electoral systems that make every vote count and shame politicians into being better representatives.

I also think that voluntary voting ensures that political parties recognise the importance of their own loyal voters in getting them elected. In Australia, both the major parties rely on large swathes of voters who can be relied upon to vote for their party at every election and makes no effort to appeal to them, either when setting their party’s agenda or in their campaign activity. While it is important to appeal to the centre ground, a political system where only swinging voters matter is dysfunctional. If you look at the US, candidates and parties must convince centrist independents to vote for them while inspiring and motivating their own base to come out and vote.

I’ve heard it said that far-right parties find it easier to motivate their supporters to come out and vote. I would argue, rather, that parties that more closely reflect their voters in terms of their policy agenda find it easier to motivate those voters to turn up and vote. In a political system with only two parties, unsurprisingly neither party is particularly close to its voter base, so its voters tend to be less motivated. If you have a system where there are five or six significant parties along the spectrum, each is more effective at motivating its loyal voter base to turn out.

Rather than trying to shut them out of the electoral system, or forcing unwilling voters to go to the polls and vote for whichever name they recognise, the way to deal with far-right parties is to look at the root causes of their support. Systems of proportional representation bring major parties closer to the people, and help break down the barriers between voters and politicians. As well as that, the major parties must take responsibility for destroying trust in the political system, which helps foster support for the BNP and similar parties. You must also recognise, however, that there is a certain bigot element in every society, and some of them will run for office, and occasionally win. A proportional system means every voice is heard and are represented appropriately, but you need to distinguish between representation and power. A few seats held by far-right extremists in any parliament does not destroy the legitimacy of that Parliament or threaten democracy. Indeed, treating all political parties with respect and giving them their due can often break down the claims of parties like the BNP and show them for their true colours. That is how you ultimately defeat extremists and improve democracy.

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  1. There may be downsides to compulsory voting, but they are minor. Yes, voter turnout is a good sign of voter apathy, but a simple opinion poll could find that out.

    Meanwhile, the downsides to voluntary voting are much greater:
    1. The final result is not representative of national sentiment. This is a major deal, it means you don’t have a functional representative democracy.
    2. It gives great power to high turnout lobby groups, eg Churches, Gun lobby and farming lobby in the US.
    3. It reduces turnout in low power groups, eg ethnic minorities, youth, etc.

    Compulsory voting with the option for “no candidate” is much better. People can still present their protest, etc, but you don’t select against people who are disinclined to vote for purely technical reasons (long lines at their local polling booth, they live in a safe seat, etc etc).

  2. I completely agree with you on the BNP Ben. I think the hysteria is not only unjustified but counterproductive.

  3. You can always vote informally, Ben, and many people do. It’s a way of actively showing you don’t want any of the candidates. I think a “none of the above” box would be a welcome addition to Australian ballot papers if we’re interested in learning just how little the Australian public supports our political system.

    If we want to reform electoral processes, we need to look at ways to make every vote count rather than legitimising the antipathy to voting that already exists. Queensland has already got a bad enough voting system, I don’t want the Nationals to be winning government with the support of 33% of the state again.

    I find it very interesting that the minor party vote share (non-Labour/Conservative/LibDem) is quite high in the UK EU elections, perhaps owing to the fact that PR represents the best chances of getting a minor party candidate elected. If the UK implemented a proper electoral system (even with voluntary voting) the Labour and Conservative parties would have to get their act together or face a long time out of power.

  4. Thoughtful post Ben – so when are you coming back to uni??

    On compulsory voting, from a purely party political perspective, this wouldn’t hurt the Greens. The 1999 Referendum ballot, which was non-compulsory, saw the Greens do as well (in percentage terms) as they had done in elections around the same time. I rather suspect that our vote would rise under most conditions now (in percentage terms, but perhaps slip in real terms) if we had voluntary voting. So from that perspective the Greens might do much better with it.

    However, on an ideological basis, voluntary voting allows withdrawal from civil society. At some point there is an argument for compulsion to engage with a society if one is otherwise an active participant. It is always possible to drop out socially & politically, but this should be a conscious decision rather than via apathy. Atomised and individualised, I would suggest voters do not think of their vote as being particularly significant, and their engagement pointless. The loss of collective identity (either ethnic, class or otherwise) can lead to withdrawal. Now this might be a sign of political dysfunction – a failure to engage with the populace by political elites – but is also a fairly straightforward outcome of market capitalism, which wants atomised, individualised workers and consumers as they are both easier to mould and manipulate. A collective or strong social identity might work against this and therefore is attacked (Thatcher and her “there’s no such thing as society…” etc statement).

    I would suggest it would then be best to look at this as the core issue, and maintain compulsion as a form of stopgap to further erosion – in a perfect world we might all be engaged, but we ain’t there yet.

  5. Another reason that compulsory voting is good is that where voting voluntary a third of the cost goes on get out to vote spending which increases the power of donors.

    Voluntary voting may help the Greens in inner-city electorates against Labor. Especially in the first election where the Greens get into second because turnout among Labor voters would be low. It may also help in getting passed the Libs. And in the Senate.

  6. Go for it Ben, I couldn’t agree more. Welcome to the heretics club.

    At the conceptual level compulsory voting has created two major underlying premises which, either consciously or subconsciously, guide much of our thinking about our electoral and political processes – that voting is a duty, rather than a right, and compelling people to vote means they are ‘engaged’ in the political process and civic society.

    Firstly, by conceptualising voting as a duty, rather than a right, the onus of responsibility for engagement with the electoral process is reversed. Under compulsory voting the onus of responsibility is placed on the voter to engage with the process, and the voter is fined if they fail to do so, whereas if voting were not compulsory the onus of responsibility would be placed on the electoral system and its participants to engage the voter in the process, and ensure their right to vote is protected and maximised. I find there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea of fining people if the electoral process has failed to engage them sufficiently enough for them to vote. If you have ever been involved in a NSW local government election, where the system clearly fails to engage a large portion of the electorate, but then fines them for not participating, you should begin to see the problem.

    Secondly, voting is only the most superficial form of engagement with the political process. The idea that people are ‘engaged’ with politics merely because they are compelled to vote is simply not true. As you point out Ben, the convenient mythology of compulsory voting hides much dysfunction in our political process. Aside from voting, Australia has some of the lowest rates of public participation in the political process in the western world. Rates of political party membership for instance are well below most comparable countries, with recent estimates suggesting that less than 1 in every 100 eligible voters is a member of the Labor or Liberal parties, and a claim a few years ago that Moveon.org had more Australian members than the ALP.

    Ok, I’d better stop there, or I’ll have to start my own blog.

  7. I might be persuaded not to see voting as a duty but a right, but to devolve into a rights based argument, then you could just as well head to the “use it or lose it” model. A right is not something innate, but something social prescribed, so we can make voting a simple right (like I hear people talk about “a right to drive a car”) or in a more complex form (a “right to free speech”). The more complex form does carry some elements of obligation, the simpler form easily taken away. As I would suggest that voting is a fairly core element of our current conceptualisations of democracy (try imagining it without voting) I would also suggest that an element of compulsion is warranted. While Nick is right that voting does not guarantee engagement, I would suggest that if electors have to turn up and cast a vote, most will give it at least some thought as opposed to none.

    Further, linking political membership (as engagement) with voting is a fairly simplistic way of looking at it. Yes, Australia has a low rate of party membership, but this doesn’t mean that people aren’t engaged politically – rather they are not engaged with parties. There is a trend, however, towards other forms of issue-based engagement. This doesn’t mean people are out marching down the street, but feeling some level of engagement through participation in smaller events, signing petitions, writing letters and so on. But the really key issue is the atomised nature of most peoples work now. With the loss of large concentrated workforces, is the loss of organised social cohesion, and the loss of organising spaces. While the internet serves as a form of social interaction (through the various social networking sites) this doesn’t appear to have the same level of cohesion as face to face contact. That said, it may develop over time – which will be interesting in itself.

    So, it strikes me that until we overcome the issue of atomised social interaction we will not be able to fully address the issue of a deeper engagement with political processes amongst the electorate.

  8. Voting should be considered both a right and a duty. We benefit from having a functional government and from the rules of society, the least we can do is show up and vote every couple of years. People also take duties more seriously than rights and may be encouraging people to learn just a little bit about the political parties.

    I would also argue that the low political party membership is not due to withdrawal but instead to other aspects of our political system – in the US voters associate with a political party when enrolling, not in a separate process, and in the absence of preference voting the primary is often the most powerful vote someone in a safe district casts.

  9. Stewart, thanks for that response. You do make some very important points, though we will have to agree to disagree.

    I just want to clarify that I certainly think voting is an inalienable and very important right and that all participants in the political process should always seek to encourage every eligible voter to vote. I’m certainly not thinking about ‘rights’ in the way the libertarian right do, and of course voting can, and should, be considered a right whether or not it is also considered a duty. The point I was making is that people nowadays tend to think of voting only as a duty, not as a right as well.

    Also, I wouldn’t put making voting non-compulsory at the top of my electoral reform wish list – there are plenty of other reforms which, frankly, are far more achievable as well.

    Can I be cheeky though Stewart and challenge you to describe how your concerns about the potential impact of making voting non-compulsory are supported by the experience of non-compulsory voting in other countries such as New Zealand and Canada?

    Heading off now to watch my local council meeting, which will probably go all night, so will get back to the debate tomorrow.

  10. Hi Ben – Great post. I think you’re absolutely right. Fascists have just as much right to elect MPs as anyone else does, & rigging the system to try to deprive them of that right is bad in principle and unlikely to work well in practice. And compulsory voting is a classic case of treating the symptom rather than the disease: if people are alienated from the political process, forcing them to participate just hides that alienation (and probably makes it worse) rather than addressing it.

  11. Another reason for compulsory voting is that it would make it harder to intimidate people out of voting (although this is not such a big problem in the developed world).

  12. It is in America! Or at least, apparently they don’t have enough voting booths in certain areas to deal with a higher-than-expected attempted turnout meaning some people don’t get to vote. In fact, compulsory voting means the state has a duty to enable voting/has to treat voting as a right. They can’t say “you can’t vote because we didn’t expect you would want to” as they do in the US; they just have to make sure there’s enough booths available for everyone who’s eligible.

  13. By intimidate I meant things like bosses implying to their workers that voting would not be a god thing for their jobs but your point is a good one too. Is America a developed nation or just a rich third world nation? (probably the former)

  14. Nick & others

    Firstly, I would treat each country as its own case – and you equally need to consider the electoral system and how it might effect turnout, attitude to parties, strategic voting and so on. So, if we look at Canada we should also look at the UK (both have more similar electoral systems than to NZ and Australia). The Canadian political tradition is contests between a centrist Liberal Party and a variety of Conservative parties. The NDP has not figured as party of national Government, although they do contest and win seats. As it is a FFP system you also see strategic voting (and exhortations to consider who might win, especially between NDP & Greens). This has always been a factor in UK elections as well, with people trying to back a winner who best represents their interests, rather than a party just aligned with them – so you might be a Green in a district but vote Lib Dem because they appear to have a chance of winning (or beating Lab/Con). The Labor tradition is stronger here in Australian and the UK (and NZ), but again is influenced by the electoral system.

    So, any discussion about turnout (in a comparative sense) is going to be influenced by system. That said, a lower turnout and a marginally more favourable electoral system than FFP hasn’t appeared to help the UK Greens in this last election. In terms of electoral engagement, there is, as you’ve noted, a more general trend away from engagement in a formal sense, and a move to involvement in extra-parliamentary activity as political activity. Again this is not in the traditional sense of engaging directly in political competition (party rallies etc), and more towards individualised action.

    All that said, we can each point to other countries with better or worse turnout figures to bolster our argument. My concern remains that in discussing this we aren’t touching on what may or may not be the reasons for falling formal participation. Yes, compulsory voting is not a panacea for non-engagement, but neither is it the first thing that I would examine in looking at this topic. If we consider democracy to be at odds with market capitalism (and many do) then we probably should look at how to deal with that conundrum first.

  15. I’m with Ben on this. There is a fundamentally anti-democratic core to compulsory voting that is skipped over by those on the Left who support it.

    In the end the Left arguments boil down to 2 things: (1) The Left (usually meant the ALP, but now the Greens) does better with compulsory voting and (2) We want people to engage with the political process, not avoid it.

    On the first, it is hard to sustain the case in Australia empirically–indeed, it was conservative forces that pushed for compulsory voting here because the ALP had the organised union movement to help it get people to vote and the Right got sick of paying people to whip up voters. And we’ve had many more years of conservative than ALP government since WWII. In any case, even if it were true, should the state compel people to vote just because we want a bigger Left vote?

    I am more troubled by the second argument. The current democratic parliamentary system, even in its most advanced and progressive forms in various countries, is so limited in the rights and powers it gives to the vast majority of people that calling it democracy is often quite a stretch. In effect we are saying that engagement with an often corrupt, ineffective and unjust system is to be encouraged through threat of state sanction. This is actually about increasing the legitimacy of bad political systems.

    I think people on the Left are attracted by it because there is an uncritical assumption that any kind of political engagement is better than none. I would argue that the political engagement of BNP voters is qualitatively less desirable than the political engagement of a group of workers who goes on strike to save jobs but refuses to vote in their electorate because they think none of the candidates/parties represents their viewpoint and interests.

    The reduction of politics to the official vote is one of the reactionary aspects of the current system, where participation in real social decision-making is stunted and neutered. How many times have you heard mainstream politicians say that protesters should stop disrupting things and save their effort to get the vote out? They want all dissent channelled into safe and largely ineffectual outlets.

    I take Stewart’s point about the tension between democracy and market capitalism, but to pose compulsion to vote as the “stopgap” solution to atomisation and political disinterest seems odd at best. Socially elitist at worst. I think Stewart treats the state and its ability to compel engagement with civil society as too benign a phenomenon, as if the state is some neutral form that looks after the masses in opposition to their atomisation by market capitalism. I would argue that despite the neoliberal ideology of the small state, in practice neoliberalism is a state policy on behalf of capital. Besides, it’s a bit maximalist to want to fix the market capitalist problem before addressing this democratic question (and I’m the orthodox Marxist here!).

    I’m not arguing for people to not vote, BTW, but I am against the state being used to force them to do so. It’s up to the Left to mobilise the vote on our side, not look for shortcuts. We don’t deserve votes if we’re not up to that task.

  16. The reason that Australia has had more Liberal governments than Labor governments since WWII is the DLP. Without the DLP Calwell would have won hands down in `61 (he nearly won anyway) and is unlikely to have been a one-term PM. Whitlam probably would have become PM about when he became Opposition Leader and stayed PM until about 76. Australia would be a better place had Labor won in `61.

  17. Tom :The reason that Australia has had more Liberal governments than Labor governments since WWII is the DLP. Without the DLP Calwell would have won hands down in `61 (he nearly won anyway) and is unlikely to have been a one-term PM. Whitlam probably would have become PM about when he became Opposition Leader and stayed PM until about 76. Australia would be a better place had Labor won in `61.

    Yet the fact that the ALP was split is a sign of the political weaknesses of the ALP to resist the right-wing attacks on it (and the trade unions). It underlines a more general point that politics is more important than compulsory voting in whether the (centre-)left wins votes/elections.

    Would Australia have become a better place if Calwell had won? Who knows… the Wilson Labour government in the UK in the 1960s was hardly a beacon of social democratic achievement.

  18. Tad & Nick & all
    Wow, on a Greenish blog and defending compulsory voting (which I have my own doubts about)…who’dathunkit…

    This is not unlike the debate around compulsory preferential and optional preferential. The better system can lead to undesirable and undemocratic outcomes. Sure, don’t tamper with a system to engineer results, but equally look at the potential outcomes and whether they are what was intended.

    I dispute Tad on “social elitism”. Until the electorate really is fully engaged, having a clear understanding of what processes exist for them to exercise valid and valued participation (whether a vote or something else), there still remains a need for the majority of that electorate to engage at some level. To posit it as the work of “the Left” as if this is some cohesive grouping (or a vanguard or whatever) is to ignore the objective reality of an atomised and individualised populace – one that includes much of that Left. As well, the “state” in this instance is of course not a a neutral or benign observer, as it clearly is an active participant (in its current formulation) in facilitating the functioning of the market. Of this I think there is little doubt. But short of an overthrow of the current state (which I would suggest is not going to occur in the medium term or possible even long term) we are left dealing with it as it is. If Green and other left MP’s really are just putting up the barracades inside Parliament against the worst excesses of the state (which would then be the logical outcome of our formal electoral work at this time), then I would question why we bother with an electoral road at all.

    But as I did note, voting is not a panacea for non-participation. It equally is a key part of our current conceptions of democracy. Yes, there is much wrong with how the state currently utilises its power to undermine democracy (in its broadest form), and it is also the role of left activists (and others) to engage in the struggle to constantly expand participation. But this shouldn’t be used as an excuse for ignoring the very important role of compulsory voting in engaging both the electorate and the media (as an important information channel – and one that actively looks for where there is both a story and information to transmit).

    Lastly (whew!) non-compulsory voting was, and is, a feature of West Australian local government. Most electors treat their local government as representing little more than “roads, rates & rubbish”, because that is what they are fed by self-interested Councillors via a a largely uninterested media. Its only when it becomes obvious that it wields significant power, and is a potential site for corrupt influences (and corrupt individuals – noting former State Premier Ray O’Connor jailed for stealing a “payment” intended for a Stirling City Councillor to approve a development) that the media takes an interest. So we have people elected with fewer than 1/3 of electors voting (and then as its by FFP, often less than half of that). One celebrated case had a mayor elected on a 2% turnout. This has slowly risen over the last 30years mostly through a spotlight being thrown on Councillors, the Greens and other activists making some inroads, and the WAEC introducing postal voting (which actually increases turnout significantly). But still…

  19. Ah, writing while others post…

    I agree, politics is more important than compulsory voting, but I don’t think they are necessarily mutually exclusive.

  20. If Caldwell had won in `61, then the Commonwealth would have set up a national free health care system, expanded secondary and tertiary education more (including free uni earlier), probably intervened in some industries to move increase non-primary industries and not participated in the Vietnam war or conscription. The voting age would have probably been earlier as would the Federal Court, Family Law Act and Family Court.

  21. Hi Stewart, great to have this debate (although while it has been an issue that has nagged me for a long time, I’m not about to put it at the top of my campaign list!).

    You write: “there still remains a need for the majority of that electorate to engage at some level”. Well, yes. But what if they quite rightly see voting in elections as a worse-than-useless approach? To be honest, before Ralph Nader ran in 2000 I don’t think I would’ve seen the point of voting for the US presidency. And I am about as politically engaged as they get. Of course, many Americans (including left-leaning people, people who have been on protests, etc.) don’t vote for more negative or passive reasons–they feel like the political system is completely unresponsive to their concerns. And they voted in greater numbers when they saw Obama whipping up some hope and engagement.

    Are you really saying it would be better if they were forced to vote in what they see as a sham? Or is the subtext that we need to compel them in order to prove it is not a sham? If that is the case then this is an elitist argument: we know that the system, despite its problems, is worthwhile–and we want it forced on those who disagree with our assessment.

    This is quite different from an alternative approach: for those of us who do see the need to get the vote out and for that vote to be for a left-wing alternative to the major parties, it should be up to us to make those arguments and build that momentum. I would argue that progressive supporters of compulsory voting mix up the argument to vote with state compulsion of the same.

    I agree we are dealing with the state “as it is”, and I would hardly be active in the Greens if I thought its overthrow was imminent. But making progressive, democratic demands on the state (e.g. for universal suffrage) is different from being happy with its use as a coercive weapon against ordinary people–especially to force them to “engage” with a very narrow aspect of politics (voting every 3-4 years) in order to help legitimise the current set-up or just channel dissent into “safe” channels.

    The WA example you give is telling. If we had compulsory voting there we would have higher turnouts, as in other states’ local elections, but it would be hard to make the case that WA local councils are definitively the most wracked with corruption, or that the media has the least interest in exposing them as such. I would think the one benefit of the WA situation is that people more readily identify those political processes as lacking legitimacy. Sounds like they deserve it.

    Finally, the concept of a Left in Australia is somewhat vague because it is only starting to be rebuilt after a long period of retreat. But I want to be part of building a more cohesive and clear Left that can make a greater impact. Compulsory voting can, at best, be thoroughly irrelevant to that process. Democratic it ain’t.

  22. Hey Tad
    I think you misunderstand my point about WA. The issue for me is that an otherwise enagged electorate (or at least as far as you might otherwise expect) is thoroughly disengaged from Council elections because it is not viewed as important. This has been a conscious effort of the state through the auspices of the ALP & Libeal parties – it is in their interest to have people disengaged from this as a formal process. One thing I have learned from being here in NSW is that compulsory voting in Council elections engages the media, who in turn provide it with some importance and legitimacy. This then transfers t the electorate who see that planning, service and local democracy are actually important.

    I think the problem is that while we both might have some qualms with the coercive nature of compulsory voting, I prefer to see it in a broader context, one of interacting players (electors, the media, parties etc). Call it a lesser of two evils, or my left-pessimism, but I’m not convinced that the project you outline is necessarily possible without some state interventions (as much as they were part of some other project) that we can use to our benefit. I have the same feelings about compulsory unionism. A fully engaged and responsive workforce would not need unions as ghey would be at the state of spontaneously working together – but the conditions would already be such that those employers who might otherwise exploit their workforce are already identified and controlled. But that of course then takes you into a corporatist state (or more likely, state -socialism). While we have the benefit of compulsory voting (and I do see it at as a benefit), then we should capitalise (if you’ll pardon the expression) on this and use it to expand those notions of participation. I don’t however accept that NON-participation is somehow a democratic right, but rather as an avoidance of civic participation at a fairly simplistic level. If you want to drop out of one form of participation then you should be prepared to dro out of all forms and accept whatever consequences might flow from that.

    I should add that I have an enduring memory from many years ago when travelling in Europe of an English person complaining bitterly about Thatcher, but when asked if they voted they said no. To me (and knowing the person moderately well) this smacked of “oh its a personal inhibition upon myself to have to actually vote, but I’ll complain about the consequences of that action as much as I like”.

  23. Stewart, I’m opposed to state-compelled union membership too. But support a collective decision by workers to demand union membership of each other (which is a “closed shop” and is what is really being referred to when compulsory unionism is talked about).

    It’s a question (like the vote, or any other form of civic participation) where there is a difference between pressure from below or above. That’s the distinction I’ve been trying to make. The logical corollary of your argument is that we should have the state force people to go on demonstrations to increase their engagement. I’m sure that’s not what you mean to say. But it’s a variant on the same thing.

  24. Well, this blog certainly isn’t somewhere to come for the LOLZ.

    Someone might correct me here, but I believe that it’s only compulsory for enrolled electors in Australia to turn up to a polling place and have their name marked off the roll. Actually voting when you are there is entirely optional – even to the point where you can take your ballot and just rip it up.

    Talking about rights in Australia is a waste of breath. We basically have none. Just a series of permissions, most of which have conditions and prerequisites. The notion of a right to vote (or not vote) is basically fantasy here. The head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, gives certain electors (which still includes some British citizens) permission to vote in the election of representatives to her parliament… HER parliament. That parliament has mandated that all enrolled electors must attend a polling place on polling day where they are permitted to vote, and technically I believe that the polling officers at that place can refuse that permission or at least relegate your vote to provisional status.

    I’d argue that the first thing we need is actual rights as citizens, and I think that’s something which is achievable within the current structure. Citizenship also implies that we should own our country, so the monarch (bless her) ought to go soon after that.

    Achieving actual freedoms would probably do quite a lot to increase turnout, donchafink?

  25. In practice you’re right Sam, but technically you do have to take a ballot and cast it. If you mark your name off and walk out, or don’t put a ballot in the box, you can be marked down as not voting and fined. But my memory of when I was a polling clerk is that people who mark their name off are left there.

  26. The High Court has found an implied right to vote in the constitution. Walkabout ballot papers are not a good idea and their causers should be fined. The British Subject voters are from when the roll was open to them. New Zealand when the other way and now says that any permanent resident can vote (as does Sweden). The UK allows all Commonwealth and Irish Citizens to vote but not other EU member states (but I think that will change).

  27. Had a chat to an old mate about this, and he suggested that we should have an automatic eligibility to vote, but to NOT vote should require a process where you had to say why and so on…so that you had to actually not WANT to vote to miss out. This turns on its head the “compulsory vs voluntary” part – if compulsion is abhorant, then register to NOT vote, not unlike registering as a conscientious objector. While so marked you are not hassled to vote or partake in the regularise ritual of elections, but that it is a conscious decision, as opposed to an “I can’t bothered” decision (oh, and my English friend lived in south London, first in the electorate of Mitcham & Morden, now in Wimbledon – Wimbledon is held now by the Conservative after a 10% swing against Labour in 2005).

  28. What if we just made a couple of additions to the acceptable excuses to avoid a fine for not voting – things like ‘didn’t know election was on’, or ‘didn’t wish to vote for any of the parties/candidates contesting the election’ (further discussion warranted as to precisely what these excuses should be) – and let people know what the list of acceptable excuses is. This way, people who don’t vote because the system fails to engage them can avoid being penalised, but if you can’t come up with a better excuse than ‘just couldn’t be bothered’ you can still pay the fine. That would be a compromise that might alleviate my biggest concerns.

    Stewart, I think the NSWEC might already be moving in the direction of your idea, see here:

    I have some concerns about what they are doing there, as it appears they are giving more emphasis to that than to information about things like postal voting (there is a link to this on the homepage). Should they not be putting more emphasis on informing people about how they can vote? (and finding ways to facilitate people voting more easily)

    I also noticed that the penalty for not voting at a NSW state by election is lower than that for not voting at a local government one – why?

  29. Re the NSWEC putting up an “excusing yourself from voting” form – well, because you don’t have absentee’s voting in Council elections, lots of people get caught out trying to vote out of area. I had stacks turning up at the polling booth I was on all day. They eventually got the Returning Officer to take people’s names so they could say “I tried to vote but you wouldn’t let me”. Better that they had absentee voting…

    As to why the penalty is lower – I have not the foggiest.

  30. If the public had to vote on allowing people to register to not vote, I bet the people who don’t like to vote would complain about having to vote for it.

    Adding to the excuses available for not voting would stop issuing fines from being at all worth the money. It’s illogical to keep in place a punitive system where there are no actual consequences.

    I think permanent residents should be allowed to vote.

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