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Have your democracy sausage and eat it too

  • 08 November 2018


Universal suffrage is a beautiful thing. So priceless is it, many societies (including Australia) once reserved it for only the most elite of their citizens: those who owned land or were educated or socially elevated.

Other countries apportioned partial votes which were weighted according to one's qualifications, so that those already in possession of skills and resources were further advantaged with a dose of electoral power, too.

So invaluable was this franchise, it was withheld entirely from women and people of colour — those two groups deemed to be inferior to white men and therefore not up to the task of voting on matters of importance. Australian women were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1902; Indigenous Australians had to wait another 60 years before being granted the same opportunity.

But despite its inherent worth, something strange happens to the vote after it's been gifted to us: like the new car we've driven off the showroom floor and onto the road, it immediately loses its value. The shimmer it exuded when it was still beyond our grasp turns dull once we see it close up. It's the most valuable thing when we don't possess it, and the most disposable when we do.

Millions of apathetic Americans discovered this to their regret when a minority of voters who showed up to the polls at that country's 2016 presidential election managed to elect that improbable candidate, Donald Trump.

But those abstainers who were shocked by the result, and who cried foul at Trump's dubious promotion, had only themselves to blame: this was a classic case of democracy in action. Notwithstanding the complexities of the US electoral colleges which helped skew the result, the people had voted for Trump, and so he became their president.

Voting is much like vaccination: unless the majority of people participate, the results cannot be trusted. The consequences are, however, uniformly distributed: we all get the government we deserve — especially those who choose not to cast their ballot. Americans know this, and appear to be correcting their earlier mistake at this week's midterm elections.


"Voting can be seen not as a freedom which people might politely decline, but as an unnegotiable civic duty."


It's for this reason that compulsory voting — such as that legislated by Australia and around 30 other countries — is so important. It is easy to take one's vote for granted when it hasn't been fought for; but