Professor Lisa Hill, School of History and Politics University of Adelaide, evaluates whether voting should be made voluntary in Queensland.
Queensland’s Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie, is currently seeking public opinion on electoral reform following the release of a green discussion paper in January 2013. His avowed purpose in calling for public submissions is to explore changes that will keep Queensland’s democracy ‘vibrant and strong’ and help to ‘maintain confidence’ in its electoral system (Bleijie, 2013). A key topic of the discussion paper is whether voting in Queensland elections should be made voluntary.
The obvious question is: why? After all, Australia’s electoral system is considered by electoral specialists –both here and internationally– to be one of the finest in the world. This view is apparently shared by Australians: polls have consistently found that between 70% and 77% of Australians (including Queenslanders) approve of compulsory voting. Further, for decades, compulsory voting has successfully done what it was supposed to do: maintain high and socially-even turnout levels that are the envy of the industrialised voluntary-voting world. Compulsory voting was introduced to address the problem of low voter turnout which, prior to introduction, was hovering in the 50 – 60 per cent range (RV-registered voters). It proved to be an extremely decisive and successful remedy. The net increase over time since the introduction of compulsory voting has been an impressive 30.4 percentage points (Louth and Hill, 2005). In the post-war period the average turnout rate for Australian national elections has remained steady at around 95% of registered voters (RV). The pattern at the state level has been almost identical, Queensland included.
The current system is easily accessible, well-managed and, for the most part, controversy-free (see Hill, 2010). So, why the talk of abandoning it?
Without compulsory voting Australian democracy would look very different. Turnout would be considerably lower and would probably fall to around 60% VAP (voting age population) (Hill and Louth 2005; Jackman, 1997). Indeed, Simon Jackman has suggested that it could dip as low as levels ‘recorded in places like Japan and the US’, that is, in the 50-60% VAP range (Jackman 1997, 42). It is doubtful, then, that the voting habit would stay with Queenslanders without the strong incentive of law. Without compulsory voting Queensland’s democracy would likely be experiencing the same crisis of citizenship experienced in most other advanced democracies.
Is compulsory voting really so onerous that we would want to trade our enviable voting levels for the right to abstain? It is worth bearing in mind that, compared to most other systems, voting in Australia is a comparatively painless affair for electors because the state meets almost all of the opportunity and transaction costs involved. In fact, Australia has been described as ‘the most voter-friendly country in the world’ (Mackerras and McAllister 1999: 223). Here, the state (via electoral commissions) assumes a high degree of responsibility for making feasible what it demands of voters. Electoral commissions go to considerable lengths in order to accommodate aging and immobile people, the homeless, those living in remote regions, prisoners, people who have a disability, are ill or infirm, housebound, living abroad, approaching maternity, hospitalized, have literacy and numeracy problems or are from a non-English speaking background. There are also special provisions for ‘silent enrolment’ (for those who believe that having their name on a public roll endangers either themselves or their families) and itinerant enrolment (‘for homeless people, or people who travel constantly and have no permanent fixed address’). In Australia, no-one, no matter how marginalized, isolated or immobile, is expected to meet the potentially high transaction and opportunity costs of voting; costs which the state would be unlikely to offset were voting voluntary (which is, in fact, the case in most voluntary systems). Since Australian electoral commissions actively seek and assist with registration (most recently with direct enrolment); provide electoral education; offer absent voting, mobile polling and postal voting; hold elections on a Saturday and ensure that polling booths are generally close at hand, voters don’t have to sacrifice much in terms of cost and opportunities for work or leisure in order to vote. Doubtless, the ease of voting in Australia has been an important factor in keeping any potential antipathy towards the compulsion to vote at bay.
The idea that voluntary voting might be a means for keeping Queensland’s democracy ‘vibrant and strong’ is particularly puzzling given trends elsewhere. In most industrialised voluntary-voting democracies worldwide turnout is low and steadily declining (Blais et al., 2004). Worse still, it is declining in a socially uneven fashion whereby failure to vote is generally –and increasingly– concentrated among the young, the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, renters, new citizens, and people with low literacy, numeracy and majority language competence (see, for example, Lijphart 1997; Hill, 2002; Hill, 2010a). In other words, the worse off you are, the less likely you are to vote under a voluntary system. This matters because, generally speaking, governments are more attentive to the demands of habitual voting groups such as senior citizens and the middle classes, at the expense of those who tend to abstain (politicians aren’t stupid: they know who their customers are). A substantial body of cross-national and single-setting studies has found a strong relationship between voting and the design and implementation of public policies (e.g. Gallego 2010; Griffin and Newman, 2005; Martin, 2003: 111; Verba et al, 1993; Griffin and Newman, 2005: 1222; Button, 1989). In voluntary systems, because voting is concentrated among the more prosperous members of society, it tends to help those ‘those who are already better off’ (Verba and Nie, 1972, p. 388. See also Chong and Olivera, 2005; Birch, 2009, p. 131; Mahler 2008, pp.161, 178; Fowler, 2011: 26). In other words, those who vote are better served by governments than those who do not. By contrast, in systems where voting is universal and socially-even, government attention and spending is more evenly distributed (Birch, 2009; Hill, 2010b). Because habitual voters tend to be already better off than non-voters, failure to vote therefore exacerbates and perpetuates social and political inequality (Lijphart, 1997; Hill, 2002).
Australia has hitherto been largely –and uniquely– immune from the socio-economic status (SES) voting gap that exists in most other advanced democracies. This would change if Queensland were to introduce voluntary voting because the inevitable depression in turnout would, almost certainly, be concentrated among the more socially and economically marginal members of the electorate. So, turnout would most likely dip to around 60% (perhaps lower) and would be concentrated among the more prosperous and secure in the community.
Critics of compulsory voting often suggest that there are other and better ways of keeping turnout high. Various experiments in raising turnout in voluntary settings worldwide have met with mixed-to-poor success. But there is one method with proven efficacy: compulsory voting. In fact, compulsory voting is the only mechanism that, on its own, is able to push turnout into the 95% (VAP) range. Accordingly, there have been calls for its introduction in the UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand, India and even Jordan. The suggestion that it should be abolished after decades of successful operation and in an era when most industrialised democracies are battling to find solutions to the problem of declining voter participation therefore seems strange. Since Queensland was the first Australian state to introduce compulsory voting in 1914 it would be especially ironic if it were the first to abandon it.
Besides providing better representation, compulsory voting has a number of other positive spinoffs. It has a tendency to promote political participation in general, is correlated with low levels of corruption and has ‘a strong and significant impact on satisfaction with democracy’ (Birch, 2009, pp. 113, 140). It is no coincidence that Australians exhibit fairly high levels of trust in government compared to citizens in other advanced, voluntary-voting democracies. They also indicate high levels of approval for ‘how well democracy is working’ and ‘very low levels of perceived political corruption’ (Donovan et al. 2007: 102). Furthermore, Australians have been found to ‘place more value’ in both voting and ‘obeying laws’ than citizens in comparable voluntary-voting settings (Donovan et al. 2007: 102). This is probably related to the fact that almost all eligible Australians are involved in the appointment of their lawmakers. Therefore, if Queenslanders want to keep their democracy ‘vibrant and strong’ and maintain high levels of ‘confidence’ in their electoral system, the last thing they should do is abandon compulsory voting.
Birch, S. 2009. Full Participation: A Comparative Study of Compulsory Voting, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Blais, A., Gidengil, E., Nevitte, N., Nadeau, R., 2004. ‘Where Does Turnout Decline Come From?’ European Journal of Political Research 43 (2): 221-236.
Bleijie, J. 2013. ‘Public to Have a Say on Electoral Reform’, http://statements.qld.gov.au/Statement/2013/1/3/public-to-have-a-say-on-electoral-reform
Button, J. W. 1989. Blacks and Social Change: Impact of the Civil Rights Movement in Southern Communities, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Chong, A. and Olivera, M. 2005 ‘On Compulsory Voting and Income Inequality in a Cross-Section of Countries’, Inter-American Development Bank Research Department Working Paper # 533, May 2005.
Donovan, T., Denemark, D. and Bowler, S. 2007. ‘Trust, Citizenship and Participation: Australia in Comparative Perspective’, in D. Denemark, G. Meagher, S. Wilson, M. Western and T. Phillips (eds), Australian Social Attitudes 2: Citizenship, Work and Citizenship, Work and Aspirations. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.
Fowler, A, 2011. ‘Turnout Matters: Evidence from Compulsory Voting in Australia’. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1816649. Consulted 1-17-2011.
Gallego, A. 2010. ‘Understanding Unequal Turnout: Education and Voting in Comparative Perspective, Electoral Studies, 29 (2), pp. 239-248.
Griffin, J.D. and Newman B. 2005. ‘Are Voters Better Represented? The Journal of Politics, 67 (4), pp. 1206-1227.
Hill, L. 2002. ‘On the Reasonableness of Compelling Citizens to Vote: The Australian Case’, Political Studies, 50 (1) 2002, pp. 80-101.
Hill. L. 2010. ‘Public Acceptance of Compulsory Voting: Explaining the Australian Case’, Representation, 46 (4), pp. 425-438.
Hill. L. 2010a. ‘On the Justifiability of Compulsory Voting’, British Journal of Political Science, 40 (4), 2010, pp. 917-923.
Hill, L. 2010b. ‘Is Low Turnout a Non-Problem?’, Proceedings of the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference 2010.
Jackman, S. 1997. ‘Non-compulsory Voting in Australia?: What Surveys Can (and Can’t) Tell Us’, Paper presented to the American Political Studies Association Conference, 1997.
Lijphart, A. 1997. ‘Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma’, American Political Science Review 19 (1), 1-14.
Louth, J. and Hill, L. 2005. Compulsory Voting in Australia: Turnout With and Without it. Australian Review of Public Affairs 6 (1), pp 25−37.
Mackerras, M. and McAllister, I. 1999. Compulsory Voting, Party Stability and Electoral Advantage in Australia. Electoral Studies 18 (2): 217−33.
Mahler, V. A. 2008. ‘Electoral Turnout and Income Redistribution by the State: A Cross-National Analysis of the Developed Democracies’, European Journal of Political Research, 47, 161-183.
Martin, P. S. 2003. ‘Voting’s Rewards: Voter Turnout, Attentive Publics and Congressional Allocation of Federal Money’, American Journal of Political Science, 47 (1), pp. 110-27.
Verba, S. Schlozman, H. Brady and N. H. Nie, 1993, ‘Citizen Activity: Who Participates? What Do They Say?’, American Political Science Review, 77, pp. 303-318.
Verba. S. and N.H. Nie, 1972. Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality New York: Harper and Row.
 Turnout at the last state election in Queensland was 91% RV.
 This enables them to vote. Their details are later checked in order to determine why their name did not appear on the roll.
 At the federal level, compulsory enrolment was introduced in 1911 but voting itself did not become mandatory until 1924. It wasn’t until as late as 1984 that it became compulsory for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders to register and vote.