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Optional voting dims democracy

  • 18 March 2013

'The strong argument against compulsory voting is simply one of liberty,' proclaims Australian columnist Christopher Pearson. 'In a free country, the right to decide not to vote ought to be enshrined and as much taken for granted as the right to vote.'

'In principle, the case for voluntary voting is overwhelming,' declares The Spectator Australia's Peter Coleman.

'You should have the right to vote for the [candidates] you support, and not vote for the [ones you don't support],' pronounces politics professor Dean Jaensch in The Adelaide Advertiser.

In the wake of Campbell Newman's recent suggestion of voluntary voting in Queensland, and Bronwyn Bishop's subsequent proposal for voluntary preferential voting federally, the pundits have been of one mind. While they might see practical arguments one way or the other, all are agreed that in theory, 'voluntary voting', premised on an alleged 'right not to vote', holds the high ground.

But where did this 'right not to vote' emerge from? And do we really have it? Liberty is important, but we don't have absolute liberty. There are some things we don't have the right not to do.

Few, for instance, stand up for our right not to pay taxes. Why not? Because paying taxes is a civic duty. One of the minimum requirements of existing in a community is making a contribution (if you can) to the public goods that you and your fellow citizens benefit from.

By contrast, the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression is a bona fide right, and it comes duly packaged with its seldom-exercised inverse, the right not to speak or express oneself.

So is voting more like paying taxes, or is it more like speaking or expressing oneself? The Australian's Malcolm Mackerras provides a useful case study.

Arguing for voluntary preferential voting, Mackerras asks us to imagine a 'hypothetical Greens supporter' who can't stand the major parties and doesn't want her preference to ultimately flow to either. 'Should not they be given the right to vote one for the Green and leave the rest of the ballot unmarked?' Mackerras asks.

If you think voting is about 'making a statement', 'expressing yourself' or 'making your voice heard', then you probably agree. The Greens supporter who despises the major parties should be able