Why Australians are made to vote

Hint: it goes back to the days of Australia’s upper classes and their servants

Andrew Trounson, University of Melbourne

Published 15 April 2016

Elections this year in Australia and the US will prove America has a greater share of idiots than Australia.

This isn’t a comment on the voting intentions of the American public, or the merits of potentially electing a reality TV star as president.

I’ve put idiot in italics because I’m using it in the ancient Greek sense of the word – someone preoccupied with their private affairs rather than affairs of state, and therefore unlikely to be much interested in voting.

In Australia people have to vote, while in the US people are free to be idiots if they like.

West Australians vote in Perth in 1940, 16 years after compulsory voting was introduced. Picture: State Library of WA

Sure, when faced with an unedifying set of candidates you don’t have to be an idiot to decide not to vote. But based on the 2012 presidential election, barely half of eligible voters in the US will cast a vote come November.

In Australia about 80 per cent of eligible voters will vote in the federal election.

US President Barack Obama this week praised compulsory voting, saying if introduced to the US it would help “counteract” the influence of money on elections.

Australia is one of 26 countries where voting is compulsory, but only 12 including Australia actually enforce it. Many South American countries have made voting compulsory but Australia is the only English-speaking country to do so.

Of course Australians don’t have to actually vote for anyone – almost six per cent of voting cards for the House of Representatives were filled out wrongly or not at all in the 2013 election – but they have to physically turn up to vote as a civic duty, and the vast majority do.

One of the criticisms of compulsory voting in a system like Australia’s that has preferential voting is that it increases “donkey” voting, where voters simply number preferences in the order they appear on the ballot paper. These count as legitimate votes.

Australia is the only English-speaking country where voting is compulsory. Picture: Shutterstock

The rarely told story of how Australia came to coerce its citizens to vote starts with a pragmatic, if not cynical, attempt in 1911 by one party to gain a political advantage.

But it ends in 1924 when it is unanimously endorsed as a matter of principle by both sides of politics after a massive slump in turnout in the 1922 election, from usually over 70 per cent to just 58 per cent.

“Both sides of politics were really concerned about the political apathy seen in 1922 and both parties could see the virtue of having a full electoral roll,” says University of Melbourne PhD history student Katherine Allan, whose undergraduate thesis explores the processes that delivered compulsory voting in Australia.

Australia is one of 26 countries where voting is compulsory, but only 12 including Australia actually enforce it.

The idea of compulsory voting had been talked about soon after Federation in 1901, but it only started to be debated when the ruling Labor Party moved to ban postal voting.

Labor was concerned that upper class types voting for the rival Liberal Party were using the postal vote to force their servants to vote the same way they did.

According to University of Melbourne Emeritus Laureate Professor of History Stuart Macinytre, who supervised Ms Allan’s thesis:

“Labor claimed there were more postal votes from upper class Toorak than in the whole of Western Australia.”

But the legislation, which passed, also included a proposal to make registering to vote compulsory. The idea was to make the maintenance of the electoral roll more efficient. But for the opposition it begged the question as to why not go the whole way and make actual voting compulsory?

Former Liberal prime minister Alfred Deakin called the measure “ridiculously incomplete”. But while the point was acknowledged it wasn’t pushed.

Then in 1914 the idea got new life when the Queensland Liberal government adopted compulsory voting in a bid to stave off a looming electoral defeat, only for Labor to romp home. The next year Labor adopted the principle of compulsory voting.

But World War I and a devastating split within the Labor Party meant the issue remained off the agenda.

Labor prime minster Billy Hughes and some fellow rebels split from the party over Labor’s opposition to wartime conscription, and instead merged with the Liberals to keep government as the Nationalists. The merged party would retain government until 1929.

The idea of compulsory voting had been talked about soon after Federation in 1901. Picture: Getty Images

But Ms Allan says that after the war the issue took centre stage when voter turnout in the 1922 election plummeted.

“What you see in the 1924 debate on compulsory voting is everyone referencing the worrying fall in participation,” Ms Allan says.

The final debate was noteworthy for the lack of any real opposition to the measure and passed unanimously.

As Professor Macintyre says, regardless of the principles around compulsory voting both sides could appreciate the benefit of not having to do the painful door knocking needed to simply get people out to the booths.

But high principle was invoked. The legislation was proposed as a Private Member’s Bill by Nationalist MP Herbert Payne, who argued that it would bring “a wonderful improvement in the political knowledge of the people” and make them “take a keener interest in the welfare of their country”.

Ms Allan argues that Australia’s adoption of compulsory voting was partly rooted in the country’s peaceful transition to independence from Britain and the pragmatic philosophy prevailing at the time.

This “utilitarian” thought acknowledged the power of the state to coerce citizens for the greater good.

Australia has a solid voter turnout, with about 80 per cent of those eligible voting in the federal election. Picture: Flickr

In contrast, US independence was only gained through a war over more inflexible “inalienable” rights.

“Having a low voter turnout wasn’t a problem unique to Australia, but what was different was Australia having a parliament that discussed the question of whether the state had the right to make people vote, and deciding that the virtue of having full representation of the people was something that outweighed the coercive nature of compulsory voting,” Ms Allan says.

Perhaps the real secret of why Australia adopted compulsory voting was simply that it was never seen as a contentious issue.

“There is a sense through all this that it simply wasn’t a big deal. It is so accepted here now and I think that acceptance has been there all through the history of compulsory voting,” says Ms Allan.

Opinion polls in 2005 showed support for compulsory voting in Australia ran at over 70 per cent.


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