More on compulsory voting

On Monday we had a look at an extract from Judith Brett’s new book about compulsory voting in Australia. The Conversation has one as well – a bit longer and rehearsing slightly different parts of the argument. I won’t repeat my views on the substantive point, but I wanted to draw attention to this paragraph:

Compulsory voting and enrolment are not the only distinctive features of our elections. We vote on Saturdays, the United Kingdom on Thursdays because it was once market day, and the United States on Tuesdays. We have preferential voting, whereas the norm is first-past-the-post, in which the candidate with the most votes wins. We can vote at any electoral booth in our home state, as well as interstate and at our overseas embassies and consulates. And our elections are run by government bureaucrats, according to uniform rules, with political parties and politicians at arm’s-length.

I find this deeply misleading. It implies that weekday voting, first-past-the-post, restricted opportunities to vote and partisan electoral officials are normal, or at least relatively widespread, among countries that Australia might reasonably be compared to. But that just isn’t true.

As I said on Monday, the reforms that Brett prizes “have all been adopted in other parliamentary democracies.” The only democracy with a deeply unreformed electoral system is the United States, and it’s impossible to resist the thought that Brett’s list has been compiled specifically with the United States in mind.

Nor do I really blame her for that, because comparisons with the United States are the staple of political debate in Australia. Defenders of compulsory voting are particularly prone to it, but they are very far from the only ones. The omnipresence here of American media and culture is probably the main cause.

Nonetheless, it makes no sense. The US is a presidential, not a parliamentary, system; with its strict separation between legislature and executive it works (or fails to) quite differently from anything that Australia has any experience of.

The problems of presidential systems – their propensity to instability and democratic decay – are common throughout the world. Nor do they seem to have anything to do with voluntary voting: such places as Brazil, Ecuador and Peru combine presidential government with compulsory voting, with no sign of it having improved things.

So who should we be comparing ourselves with? Opinions may differ at the margin, but here are the criteria I came up with:

  • They should be democracies of some standing – say, the last thirty years (I’ve used the Freedom House assessment of “electoral democracy”).
  • They should have parliamentary or at least semi-parliamentary systems.
  • They should be neither very small nor very poor (I’ve used a population of 250,000 and GDP of US$10,000 per capita as my cutoff points).

That produced the following list: Austria, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Malta, Mauritius, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago and the United Kingdom.

Of those 26, only six have first-past-the-post voting; the large majority have proportional representation. Sixteen of them vote on weekends, and most of the exceptions have other ways of ensuring it’s easy for people to vote. And as far as I can tell, all of them have independent, professional electoral authorities – perhaps not all as good as ours, but effective nonetheless.

It’s a matter of opinion, of course, but on balance I’d say democracy is in at least as healthy a condition in most of these comparison countries as it is in Australia. A few are in conspicuously poor shape, but many of them seem to have more robust institutions and higher trust in their politicians than we do.

Yet only Luxembourg among them has compulsory voting. (It also remains on the books in Belgium, but is no longer enforced.)

You can choose your own moral from that. But at least let’s make our comparisons on an appropriate basis, and stop fixating on the US.

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