More voters is not more democracy

In the coming federal election a lot of voters will find the whole process a serious inconvenience. They won’t care who wins, won’t know who the candidates are, won’t know which parties are running and won’t vote to reflect their values. In Victoria and NSW, many will be confused by the fact that they voted in state elections not long ago; plenty of people have no idea that there are parliaments in each state capital as well as in Canberra.

In most other countries, such people would probably not bother to vote. They would simply work, play or watch sport, go shopping or do whatever else they normally do on a Saturday. If Australia was similar to those countries, this would be 30 to 40 per cent of voters.

Australia is one of only a handful of countries in which voting is obligatory. There is a cluster in South America including Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay, a few in Europe (Belgium, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Slovakia), plus Nauru, Singapore and North Korea. All the countries with which we like to compare ourselves, such as the UK, USA, New Zealand and Canada, have voluntary voting.

Those who live and breathe politics cannot contemplate how anyone could be disengaged from voting. They tend to view it as an education challenge: if it is all properly explained, everyone will take it seriously. They see a lack of eagerness to vote as simply an information deficit.

Proponents of compulsory voting argue that forcing people to vote improves the quality of the democracy. The problem is, there is no evidence that countries with compulsory voting receive any benefit compared with voluntary voting countries.

Indeed, it may be that compulsory voting makes the democratic process less responsive to the views of the electorate, as political parties can ignore their primary constituency and instead concentrate solely on swinging or whimsical voters. Under voluntary voting a candidate would need to appeal both to their supporters (who otherwise might decline to vote) and swinging voters (who might vote for other parties).

Under compulsory voting, representatives of safe seats face no democratic pressure. Voluntary voting would mean that no seat was truly safe as supporters may refuse to vote. Representatives need to be constantly aware of the views in their electorate and take no victory for granted.

My mother was a classic reluctant voter, notwithstanding the fact that her eldest son (me) was a political junkie and later a politician. When I once asked her how she had voted in an election, she said she couldn’t remember who it was apart from being the leader with the nicest teeth.

She was immensely proud of me when I was elected, and I’m pretty sure she told all her friends I would be prime minister one day, but I doubt if she even knew the name of my party. None of this was due to a lack of information; if given a choice, she would probably have never voted.

Compulsory voting supporters also worry that optional voting will result in a loss of support. Usually it is Labor that worries most about this, yet left-leaning parties have never had any trouble winning elections in countries where voting is voluntary — New Zealand and Canada, for example.

Genuine democracy is based on universal suffrage, yet the right to do something implies that you have a choice not to do that thing. It would be absurd to say that Australians have the “right” to pay tax; paying tax is a legal obligation, not a right. Making voting compulsory changes it into a legal obligation rather than a right.

The right to vote should be a civil freedom, like free speech or free association. But free speech does not imply a requirement to speak, and free association does not imply a requirement to join clubs. Likewise, the freedom to vote should not imply a requirement to vote.

Furthermore, it should not be obligatory to register to vote. Under legislation introduced in 2013, Australia’s compulsory voting laws were made more coercive by the introduction of provisions which allow the harvesting of private citizens’ personal details from other government databases, such as driver’s licences, for forced voter registration.

Involuntary enrolment and compulsory voting force citizens to validate an electoral choice which, for some, is not one they want to make.

This article originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review.