Compulsory voting revisited

Judith Brett has written a new book: From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting. I haven’t seen it in the shops yet, but an edited extract was published the other day by the ABC. I look forward to reading the whole thing.

Going by the extract, her argument is that Australia of a century or so ago was a world leader in democratic practice, and that compulsory voting was a natural culmination of that trend of reform. Our politicians, she says, “tinkered away until they got it right.”

While there are, she says, “many reasons to be frustrated with Australian politics” today, “our electoral system is not one of them.”

It’s a credit to Brett’s scholarship that she gives you enough facts to undermine her own argument. The record of reform is impressive: universal male suffrage, the secret ballot, votes for women, independent electoral administration, compulsory enrolment, weekend voting. But the reader will notice something odd about this list.

These other measures have all been adopted in other parliamentary democracies – most of them quite quickly.* But compulsory voting has not, even though it was introduced in Australia in 1924. Why have other countries not followed suit? Do they perhaps know something that we don’t?

It’s true that Australia’s electoral system was state-of-the-art in the 1920s. But it’s equally true that we are clearly no longer a world leader. Our last major reform was the introduction of proportional representation for the Senate in 1948. The one real innovation since was group ticket voting in 1984, which proved so undemocratic that it was abolished in 2017.

Most obviously, unlike the vast majority of parliamentary democracies, we have never introduced any element of proportional representation in our lower house. And this is significant, because Brett counts it as one of the benefits of compulsory voting that “it makes it easier for new entrants, both parties and independents, to contest seats.”

That seems dubious; I think what she’s really talking about is the benefit of automatic enrolment, not compulsory voting. But even if it’s true, it’s small compensation for the huge disadvantage that single-member districts impose on competitors to the major parties.

More generally, it we compare today’s Australia with other established parliamentary democracies – Canada, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, Germany, the Benelux countries, Scandinavia – it’s hard to argue that their political systems are generally more dysfunctional than ours or that their public disengagement from politics is greater.

If anything, most of them seem in rather better shape than we are. I don’t suggest compulsory voting is the only reason for that, but there’s nothing far-fetched in the idea that thinking of voting as a right is more conducive to democratic engagement than thinking of it as an obligation.

Brett argues that “Without compulsory voting, many disillusioned voters would turn away from politics altogether and stop voting.” No doubt that’s true, but that gives the system a safety valve: parties see that they are losing voters and have an incentive to do something about it.

In Australia, the disengaged are still dragooned to the polls, so parties may not notice their disaffection until it is too late.


* There are occasional exceptions: Belgium did not let women vote until 1948; Britain and Ireland still vote on weekdays (although they have long hours of polling, which Australia abandoned in the 1980s). But that doesn’t alter the general picture.

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