Trump victory demonstrates why we need compulsory voting
The outcome of the US presidential election provides a convincing argument for the benefits of compulsory voting. Because voting is not compulsory in America, Donald Trump will be president of the United States, even though just one in four Americans voted for him.
Millions of Americans fail to vote in presidential elections
Despite the enormous consequences of electing a man who displayed such obnoxious behaviour to the most powerful office in the world, only 57 per cent of eligible voters bothered voting in the US election. This is well below the 61.6 per cent turnout that saw Barack Obama elected in 2008. Ninety-five million Americans didn’t vote.
I have travelled extensively in the United States and seen what happens to people who don’t vote. Basically, if you don’t vote, you don’t count. If you don’t vote politicians can, and do, ignore you. I saw whole tracts of America struggling in poverty, left behind by the growing economy. It hit the less educated, socially disadvantaged parts of the community, and they were the largest proportion of Americans who didn’t vote.
Voters swayed by Trump’s claim to be “anti-establishment”
Interestingly, Trump won this election when many angry non-voters suddenly turned out and voted. They voted against the powers in Washington that had ignored them for far too long. Trump promoted himself as being “anti-establishment” and many disenchanted Americans hoped that he would shake up Washington.
Many Democrats, especially young supporters of Bernie Sanders, didn’t vote and Hillary Clinton lost crucial states, although across the nation two million more people voted for her than for Trump. Whether Trump does help those who voted for him is another matter, but it shows what happens when people use the ballot box to force change.
I very much doubt that Trump would have won if America had compulsory voting like we do in Australia. If every American had been obliged to vote, the result would have more accurately reflected who the country really wanted as president.
How did Australia come to have compulsory voting?
Fortunately, the compulsory voting regime we have in Australia saw 91 per cent vote in the last election. We owe this state of affairs to someone most people have never heard of. He was a senator from Tasmania, Herbert Payne, who introduced a private member’s bill for compulsory voting in 1924.
Payne was shocked that just 59 per cent of Australians voted in the 1922 election. He said parliamentarians had to represent all Australians, not just those who voted for them. He felt voting was both a right and a duty for every citizen.
Indigenous Australians and the right to vote
Unfortunately, the segment of the population that was overlooked in these reforms was Indigenous Australians, who did not acquire the right to vote in federal elections until 1962, when the Menzies government amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act.
Today, because everyone has to vote, Australian politicians can’t afford to ignore the needs of the disadvantaged. It means a fairer society and avoids the anger and frustration that saw Trump elected.
In 2024 we should be unveiling statues of Senator Herbert Payne around the country to honour the centenary of his contribution to democracy and a fairer nation.