Why being forced to vote is a good thing
Many of us may be frustrated at the latest election result; others optimistic about NSW’s future. Most of us are delighted that we don’t have to waste part of another valuable Saturday in a queue at a polling venue.
But consider this; what would happen if voting wasn’t compulsory in this country?
A quick look at Australia’s voting history reveals this; by 1911 the law allowed women (excluding Aboriginal women) to vote in federal, state and territory elections. By 1965 all states and territories had given Aboriginal people voting rights.
But the right to vote didn’t mean you had to.
Amazingly, in 1924 a private member’s bill introduced in the Senate by someone most of us have never heard of – Tasmanian backbencher Senator Herbert Payne – shaped our future. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924 passed without debate or much consideration, introducing compulsory voting for people on the electoral roll, and penalties for not voting. State and territory laws soon followed suit. Ultimately, this meant that all members of society would have a say in who ran our country (once all people had the right to vote). The only exception was Aboriginal voters, for whom voting remained voluntary until 1984.
It means this; our government can’t ignore the needs of the poor and socially disadvantaged in society. Because they vote. Political parties need to consider the appeal of their policies to all voters, not just the wealthy ones. We have ended up with a strong system of social welfare as a direct result.
We tend to assume election results in other first world countries also reflect the majority opinion. Not necessarily.
In the United States voting is not compulsory. Without a real incentive to vote, many don’t, particularly people who are uneducated and socially disadvantaged. And that means that policies are less likely to consider their needs; and politicians less likely to educate them about political issues that affect them. Social security benefits in the USA aren’t a patch on ours.
Compulsory voting has been debated in many countries that don’t have it, including England; largely to get a better turn-out at the polls; and to even up the political influence of different socio-economic groups. But after decades of voluntary voting it’s unpopular. And it’s expensive to set up and administer.
It makes sense that democracies with histories of enforcing compulsory voting, such as Australia, Belgium and Cyprus, get better voting turn-outs.
While some say it’s undemocratic to be forced to vote, and we may whinge about having to front up on election day, compulsory voting encourages our politicians to get out there in the community and find out what different groups need. Surely that’s a good thing.