Have your democracy sausage and eat it too



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.

Sausages on a grillOther 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 when it's been withheld from you, it assumes an enormous importance — not because of what it symbolises, but because it has the power to effect policy and so change how your world is run.

Black South Africans know this well; when they were enfranchised in 1994 they clutched their votes as though they were precious slabs of gold. They queued up in the pouring rain and the burning sun for hours to cast their ballots; they came from the furthest rural outposts, the old and the infirm, struggling to the booth so that their voices could be heard.

Yet many of those who are subject to the policy of compulsory voting oppose it. Such methods directly contradict their freedom of expression and choice, they say. It's a curious inversion of the reaction from those denied the right to vote, such as the suffragettes, who did everything in their power to claim it.

And it prompts the question: in a world beset with voter inequality (including the voter suppression used to prevent certain groups from voting in the US), can the refusal to vote ever be justified? Or can the act of refusing to vote be interpreted as a wilful attempt to disenfranchise oneself?

Of course, no-one can really be forced to vote. In Australia, people of voting age are forced under threat of a fine to show up at the polling station; they may spoil their votes. But the policy of mandatory voting aims to ensure that the occupants of the country's parliaments are communally determined by its entire electorate, rather than a small number of people with vested interests. Voting can be seen, then, not as a freedom which people might politely decline, but as an unnegotiable civic duty.

Lest we take our own franchise — and high voter turnout — for granted, perhaps we should perceive this country's system through the outsider's eyes: 'Woah,' Tweeted American author Gabrielle Blair earlier this week after attending a festival in Sydney. 'They have mandatory voting in Australia. Voting happens on a Saturday. The whole community comes out and celebrates with sausages. We can create the voting culture we want ...'

As a veteran of numerous Election Day cake stalls, I pointed out to Blair that not only do we have sausages, we have cake as well. Let the Americans eat cake, and maybe then they'll stop taking democracy for granted.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, suffrage, Donald Trump, American elections



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Existing comments

I certainly approve of compulsory voting. We are very lucky here. If it puts some people out for an hour or so every three of years, so be it.

Lynne Redknap | 08 November 2018  

Voting in Australia is not compulsory. What is required of a citizen is that he/she be on the electoral roll and at election time attend an electoral office or voting centre and have his/her attendance recorded. He/she also has the option of a postal vote. True for a vote to be valid certain conditions must be met but there is no compulsion to vote validly. The amount of money spent on "getting the voters out" in countries like USA is obscene. And the strategies & tactics used to sway the voters owe much to the propaganda practices of the Bolsheviks & the Nazis. Only today the apparatchiks have acess to a greater variety of propaganda media. So much so that Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) wrote 'The medium is the message'. If the apathy that characterises members of the workers of Australia that permits some rabble rousers and demagogues to become union leaders, I wouldn't like to see the state Australia would be in if voting was not 'compulsory'.

Uncle Pat | 08 November 2018  

Catherine, it is interesting to note that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote by a reasonable majority, whilst she lost by a very slim and very controversial margin , the Collegiate vote . Sadly the voting system is not only voluntary, but also affected by gerrymanders in some of the States where the State Legislature determines the method of voting. Even local officials can and do disenfranchise voters, often on racial or social grounds. Florida is a case in point where this has happened frequently in the last few decades.

Gavin O'Brien | 09 November 2018  

Thanks for raising the topic, Catherine. I think compulsory voting is better than the alternative, but still not sure that the govt that's elected is "communally determined by its entire electorate, rather than a small number of people with vested interests." That could only be true if we were sure the entire electorate was uniformly informed on the issues and platforms, and made a considered decision. I think apathy and distracatability still reign amongst Australian voters - makes me wonder if we deserve our democracy or not!

Anne Marie | 09 November 2018  

Some interesting reflections on the way democratic participation is viewed and handled. Please bear in mind though, that the right to vote and the ability to exercise that right in the US are not as straightforward as is the case in Australia. Even now, many states impose onerous requirements, e.g. registration and voting may be impeded by rigidly defined identification requirements; polling places might be few and difficult to get to by public transport; elections are held on Tuesdays and employers are not required to give people time off to vote. Compulsory voting would be a good beginning but other measures would have to be taken to remove obstruction and encourage participation.

Myrna | 09 November 2018  

Catherine, how could you possibly know that "millions of Americans" regretted not voting in 2016 when they found that Trump won ? What evidence do you have ? In any event, to quote the Toronto Sun, with respect to Tuesday's midterm U.S. election, "Trump did better than Obama and Clinton" and that "Tuesday's midterm U.S. election showed that Trump-ism is alive and well".

Peter Flood | 09 November 2018  

I have lived in a number of countries, and my opinion of the "best" voting system has changed quite a lot over the years, as one sees the strengths and weaknesses if different ones. Catherine makes some good points and l agree with most of them and think Australia is pretty good. However, although I too have come to support compulsory voting, I also recognise that it leads to more frivolous and uninformed "populist"/protest voting than where voting is more voluntary. At one stage I thought that perhaps the first-past-the-post UK/US outcome method would be preferable here too, and would limit the damage this voting system does to Parliament, and I really think it does undermine it badly (and makes us almost ungovernable). I now believe a better way would be to insist that a candidate for Reps should have to get at least 15-20% of the primary votes to be eligible for preferences, and for Senate at least the same % of an electable allocation. I would also make Parliaments 4 years across the board.

Eugene | 10 November 2018  

Its a pity Uncle Pat hides his identity behind his nom-de-plume, otherwise we'd all be able to assess the value of his tirade against union leaders against the otherwise generally insightful quality of his various other posts. Unions are a necessary and indeed an essential part of the economy, primarily because they protect workers' rights, especially in an age in which capitalism has a global and unchecked impact and the natural rights of workers, especially in developing economies, greatly jeopardised. Indeed, the Catholic Church has a longstanding teaching on the rights of workers, commencing with Rerum Novarum, more than a century ago, and regularly updated though various papacies to reflect changes in working conditions. And as for Marshall McLuhan, it may have escaped Uncle Pat's attention that McLuhan was a great supporter of 'getting the vote out' in the instance of civil rights, otherwise the Republicans everywhere, both at state and federal levels, would have won, and African-American people still disenfranchised at the polls.

Michael Furtado | 22 November 2018  

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