Compulsory Voting Doesn’t Have to Be Compulsory
In Australia, voting in municipal, state and federal elections has been mandatory since 1924. Over 90% of eligible voters consistently get to the ballot box, and serious opposition to compulsory voting is practically nonexistent.
The punishment for refusing to vote without a valid excuse? A mere $20 fine.
Moreover, it technically isn’t mandatory to actually select a candidate. All one needs to do is get their name marked off on the register and drop a ballot into the box. Whether anything is written on that ballot is irrelevant.
Still, genuine expressions of political preference are commonplace. The Australian Electoral Commission designates illegible, blank or spoiled ballots as informal votes. This category only comprised about 5% of ballots in the 2019 General Election. In other words, the vast majority of Australians show up and vote correctly, surpassing their legal obligations.
Compare this to the United States, where only 55% of eligible voters exercised that right in 2016. The last time turnabout was so bad in Australia was 1922 (59%). The government responded by implementing compulsory voting and turnout has remained high ever since.
Critics of mandatory voting often argue that citizens have the right to reject every candidate by abstaining from lodging a vote. In their view, mandatory voting is a form of compelled speech.
The Australian implementation avoids these problems altogether. It is fully possible and largely pain-free to not vote, as can be affirmed by the roughly 10% of the population which doesn’t turn up for federal elections. Instead, the fine is a clear and persuasive message to citizens: “Voting is an obligation, not a choice.” This results in a paradigm shift for Australians — instead of actively choosing to vote, they must actively choose not to.
If we want to increase democratic participation, it’s not enough to merely encourage people to exercise their right to vote. That strategy has failed, even when adopted on a massive scale and fuelled by social media.
Turnout is declining, and compulsory voting is a way for many countries to get more people to the ballot box. We don’t have to give such a law teeth in order for it to have an impact.