Optional voting dims democracy


Informal ballot paper'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 to demonstrate her disgust by not giving either the benefit of her preference.

But is voting really all about giving the finger to politicians you can't stand? That's one view. Another, possibly quaint view is that voting is about determining which candidate is the one most suited to being given legislative power over us. In a democracy, we maintain that the best candidate is the one who is most preferable to the most people. If some of us refuse to tell us who they prefer, then we can't work out who is the best candidate.

Does the hypothetical Greens supporter actually hate each major party equally? If so, she hasn't followed the news very closely. For as much as some like to moan about the narrowing ideological divide between the two major parties, it doesn't take a political scientist to discern some fairly sizeable differences in their policies.

So does this hypothetical voter really have the 'right' to refuse to tell us which party she really prefers, just so she can 'express herself'?

Without this voter's preferences, the election result is less reflective of 'the people's will'. That's bad, because elections and voting are all about finding out what is the people's will.

If a portion of the people refuses to tell us their will, we're left with representatives who are less representative of that will, and everyone loses. Citizens have less confidence in, and feel greater ill will towards, their representatives. All the divergent views and interests and perspectives and opinions that constitute our nation are not accounted for, and our governance is the poorer for it.

Being able to vote is not just a privilege we may or may not choose to take advantage of. It's a minimum duty we owe by dint of our existence within a society of human beings.

Pearson alluded to and dismissed this unfashionable argument: '[An argument for compulsory voting] is that it ensures the maximum enfranchisement of the electorate in making people take ownership of their government. But I think we could all do with a little less nanny-state-inspired taking ownership.'

If you believe that any argument a conservative commentator characterises as 'nanny-state-inspired' must be wrong, you might find such reasoning convincing. Otherwise, you might agree that sometimes our nation's pundits could do well to remember that banal but oft-forgotten adage — that with rights come responsibilities. 

Patrick McCabe headshotPatrick McCabe works at an Adelaide law firm while completing a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice.

Topic tags: Patrick McCabe, democracy, compulsory voting, Christopher Pearson



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Existing comments

I fear that as quickly as other "rights come with responsibilities" matters - protection for the unborn, every child should have the right to being parented by a mother and a father, end of life palliative care and support, marriage is the natural state for a man and a woman to provide each other with the levels of satisfaction by which they can then continue to provide human society with secure foundations, etc etc, this exchange of will and spirit, which has its beginnings in the birth of democracy itself 5000 years ago, will soon be done away with in some orgy of "it's our individual right to have optional voting." Responsibility solely to oneself is the illusory stupor of being only half human.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 18 March 2013  

Great article, Patrick. An additional point I have used when conversing with students opposing compulsory voting is the secret ballot only requires one to attend a polling booth and submit a ballot. In practice then, it is arguably not 'compulsory' to cast a vote. In any case, I find the 'rights and responsibilities' argument quite persuasive on its own.

Moira Byrne | 18 March 2013  

On occasions when there has been no candidate I was willing (in conscience) to vote for, for example, if I had to choose between incarceration of asylum seekers and support for abortion, I have gone to the polling booth and checked in but then openly walked off without voting, thinking that that was illegal. I have since been told that it's not illegal. Next time I just won't go.

Gavan | 18 March 2013  

A very thought provoking article Patrick, and I also believe that a great truth is cited in the comment by Fr. Mick Mac Andrew.

John Whitehead | 18 March 2013  

This is great, thought provoking and encouraging from a young intelligent, academic. Thank you Patrick. Could add of course that on the whole preferential voting [compulsory] provides legitimacy to government and on the whole [with present times an exception] majority control of the parliament with the inherent stability that entails. Perhaps it is our Australian unfamiliarity with minority governments that has provided the base for the terrible display of power grabbing that we have witnessed over the last 2 1/2 years. Hopefully we can avoid establishing this form as the norm.

Mike Bowden | 18 March 2013  

I like the nuance of Patrick's article, but fear that he is in the minority in the current political discourse in Australia. We can't have an intelligent discussion on anything! It's all just about what side you're on. So Labor's quite rational concern about 457 visa issue now becomes a political fight likening it to Hanson-like racism - and all just to win political points. And in the same way, a discussing on optional voting gets swept up into the loony right wing idealism that accuses everyone of being immoral for not being fortunate enough to achieve the "natural state of marriage".

AURELIUS | 18 March 2013  

Those who remember optional voting in municipal elections saw candidates focusing on finding out who favoured which candidate - and the 'ferrying' of supporters to the voting places rather than explaining on policies. Anyway, a basic principle of democracy is to find out what people want, including those who find it difficult or tiresome to go to the voting place on election day.

Bob Corcoran | 18 March 2013  

Having voted for many years in the UK, I thought I would be a great supported of compulsory voting. BUT, I am not. It leads to much more populist and crude political stuff...like the current racist dog-whistling from Gillard! In the UK the parties have to appeal to the "interested" voter (OK more educated and middle class!), although it does mean that well-organised pressure groups can have a disproportionate influence at times. Finally, I really do not want to have to vote for individuals whose values I abhor; fortunately in reality I believe that your vote remains valid if you just vote for some and not all on the list....there are some people (pro-euthanasia enthusiasts, militant pro-abortionists, for example) for whom I am not prepared to put a number against even if last.

Eugene | 18 March 2013  

Thanks Eugene for your sensible comment. There are many countries which do not have compulsory voting, one being Switzerland. Compulsory voting does not guarantee the right Government since I maintain that the majority of voters do not study the policies of the party they chose, nor the platform of the representatives of their local constituency! To make it quite clear - I would vote even if it was voluntary!

Peter Meury | 18 March 2013  

I agree with the article. Rights do come with responsibilities (though I'm not sure I follow all of Fr MacAndrews reasoning, but I'm not sure I don't follow it either -- maybe I'm dense but I'm a bit confused by it; I have to put some more thought into untangling it). Anyway, I do believe voting is a responsibility. But there should be a "none of the above" option, and if that wins another ballot with other candidates should take place. Interestingly, here in the U.S. compulsory voting would never happen, due both to the widespread juvenile libertarian attitudes, and due to the fact that the corporate forces that control so much of this country are trying to stop people from voting, as the disgraceful Republican shenanigans in the recent U.S. election show

Malik | 19 March 2013  

Voters should have the option to check 'none of them.' If 'none of them' should ever get a majority than all the parties would have to get new candidates.

M D Fisher | 20 March 2013  

While I agree that voting is a civic duty, I disagree with Patrick about optional preferential. In the recent W.A. state election I voted as Patrick's Green voter did: Greens 1 and all the rest 2. I will not be forced to give any 'preference' to the likes of the Christian Democrats or the Shooters & Fishers. It would be like having to give a preference to the Nazis or the Fascists.

Russell | 20 March 2013  

Australia doesnt have compulsory voting, it never has done. The requirement is simply to attend and get your name ticked off, leaving a ballot blank, crossed through or spoiled is not illegal and never has been. Compulsory attendance is the chore most confuse with compulsory voting.

Andrew | 20 March 2013  

Covered this in politics 101 with Professor Harry Black at Cowan university He said "optional voting would lead to government by a vested minority'. Anyway, as per your little note we have to attend the booth to have our name noted we can always tell them they "suck". This is of course true from time to time. Our "political elite" have much to answer for.

Clem Schaper | 27 March 2013  

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