Compulsory Voting

This is a guest post by Philip Lillingstone.

You can find more information on this subject on his website,, but no further pictures of Paris Hilton.

Of all the reasons given to us why Australia (and the exceedingly few other countries that have compulsory voting) should retain it, I think the most spurious one is the one that informs us we ‘have a duty to vote’.

In times past when Australia was at war, women with white feathers might approach able bodied men on the street who were not in uniform, to suggest to them that they should heed a call of duty to their country. We are supposed to believe today is that each citizen similarly has a patriotic duty to his fatherland/motherland to do his ‘bit’ by making that great sacrifice and proceeding to the ballot box.

The fallacy of this argument I believe, is that of semantics. It would hardly be a stretch to define duty as an obligation to undertake a tangible service. We may be happy to perform our various duties but that does not belie the fact that the very nature of a duty is to do something primarily defined as that which the receiving party views as having value. Whether it be to give someone comfort in times of distress, to pay monies to the national revenue or take up arms in times of war.  We may joke with our friends by declaring that the reason we are helping ourselves to the hot chips on their plates is because of our duty to test their food for poison, but in reality, an act done for self indulgence that can in no way benefit anyone else, can simply never be described as a duty.

In a contemporary Victorian court case, Shire of Beechworth v A.G. [1991]  VR, the court held that the policy decisions of the Attorney-General, because of their democratic nature, cannot be subject to administrative review. In other words political decisions, those that reflect the constituency the parliamentarian represents, cannot be right or wrong, moral or immoral. This is hardly news. When we go into the ballot box to vote, we should not be constrained by mandated criteria defining what is right or wrong. Our vote should be completely at our discretion, influenced only by whatever criterion we should so choose.

This cannot be compared to that of voting in a jury. At the end of a trial the judge will often thank the jury for its efforts. There is reason for this: members of the jury are directed to make the right decision according to law, after careful deliberation of the facts and arguments. The judge cautions them not to allow personal feelings to influence their decision, but only to come to what they believe is the right and just result by deliberating over everything they have learned in court, no matter how long it takes. To best achieve justice, potential jury members may even be denied the opportunity to serve if they are deemed not suitable.

For an upcoming election however, voters are not warned against letting personal feelings sway their decision, forced to sit through hours of political party promotional material, or prevented from voting if they have personal ties with any candidate: a cornerstone of democracy is that no potential voter can be denied the right to vote. This is because voting is not so much about making ‘right’ decisions as about making decisions that personally reflect the beliefs and values of the individual voter. It is merely about what the voter wants.

A voter therefore does not have to justify his or her vote to anyone. Thus if it is discretionary and without justification, how can one person’s want be a value to anyone else, especially the whole country?

Ironically, for the sake of keeping somebody’s cholesterol count down, stealing chips off a plate might actually be performing more of a duty to your fellow citizens than voting. 

24 thoughts on “Compulsory Voting

  1. Fitting. I have to march off to the post office this morning to pay a ludicrous fine for not voting in a stupid council election I refuse to dignify with my vote.

    A vote should be something you give because you believe in a candidate (be it person, ideal, or party). It shouldn’t be extracted from you by force, and it most certainly shouldn’t be something you do simply because they made you walk all the way into city hall.

    If you don’t care enough to vote, stay the fuck out of the electoral process of my country!

  2. Philip

    Have you done any research on which party those people who otherwise couldn’t be bothered to vote would vote for? ie which party benefits most from compulsory voting?

    in the UK, only about 60% of eligible voters bother to show up. who would those other 40% vote for if forced to do so?

  3. Pommy,

    I was wondering the same thing around the time of the last election:

    “Partisan bias. Mackerras and McAllister (1996) suggest that compulsory voting has a built-in bias against right-wing parties and in favour of left-wing and minor parties. In Australia, support for compulsion by the ALP, the Australian Democrats and the Greens suggests that this is indeed the case. But this is surely just the obverse of the bias against left-wing parties that would follow an abolition of compulsion. McAllis-ter (1986:92) has estimated that, if turnout fell to 1922 proportions, Labor would lose nearly 4 per cent and the Liberals would gain 2 per cent on the 1977 election result. For the 1996 result, Jackman (1997:40) concludes that, ‘as turnout dimin-ished, the Liberals’ share of the vote could be as much as 7.4 percentage points higher than the ALP’s’.”

    Click to access 5-3-NT-3.pdf

  4. There’s no doubt that voluntary voting favours conservatives – the US is the prime example. One reason is simply that the old have more time on their hands than the young, so the individual cost of voting is less for them. Perhaps voting should be voluntary but we should pay people for it – a bit like jury duty.

    The poor and ignorant (ie indisciplined and unaware) don’t get to vote much, which might sound great but means that their interests are underrepresented. Historically in the US such disfavoured groups (often of the wrong skin colour) are deliberately discouraged from voting as partisan tactics. At least compulsory voting avoids that sort of shenanigans.

  5. I often think that voting and modern democracy is anti-libertarianitic. I think we should scrap ‘representative’ democracy, and we should all time-share, meaning that for one week each year, we would BE the local government, all who had become citizens in that week of the year they had joined. Direct, participatory democracy! No need for Mayors- we’d vote on policies as they were needed, and the people who followed next week could change them if they then chose! The people in charge of some functions, like firefighters, would probably have standing orders anyway, and would automatically react to emergencies, and could meet together to co-ordinate actions. If you wanted to participate and vote on issues, not vote for someone else to vote for you, that could be one way.

  6. I seem to recall someone once suggesting a “randocracy”, where citizens are randomly selected to be a rep for a day – kind of like jury duty.

    Once I got in power, I’d naturally try to change the rules to keep me there. It’s OK though, I’d be a benevolent dictator… well, at first.

  7. The traditional theory has been that compulsory voting helps the left… but I don’t think there is strong evidence for that. The best counter-factual for Australia is New Zealand, and they don’t seem to have a stronger right-wing bias. Indeed, Helen Clark is more left than Howard & Rudd.

    It’s true that older voters tend conservative and vote more often. But it’s also true that activists tend to be more left-wing and they also vote more often. Many populists/conservatives are indifferent to politics.

    As a side note, the NZ bias was traditionall for radical change (in either direction) caused in part by their lack of an upper house. Their new (well, 10 years old) voting system changed that somewhat by giving minor parties the balance of power.

    The biggest impact of compulsory voting is to help minor parties. That explains the Greens & Democrats position. Indeed, as the only party supporting voluntary voting, the LDP is supporting a policy that works directly against it’s own interests.

  8. Temujin, the LDP could only get rid of compulsory voting if they gained power anyway! The party would then be a major party, which would then favour voluntary voting. In short, the LDP is already planning for when it rules in its’ own right! Now THAT’S planning!
    As for Randocracy, one week of government would not be strong enough, or in power long enough, to centralise power, especially if time-sharing first means you spend a week as an armed patrolman, and then become the government, i.e. the active militia when you govern is those who are about to govern when you retire until next year! 52 militia units, each active for one week, and ruling the next, the price of being a voting citizen.

  9. Yeah, I can’t say I’m convinced voluntary voting would help conservatives… I would have guessed compulsory voting favoured the incumbent, since one would imagine those wanting change being more inclined to vote. You would think those that don’t mind one way or the other would stick with the status-quo. This would also explain why neither major party wants to change things once they get in power.

  10. It really is immaterial who compulsory voting benefits, if anyone. Considering the regular changes of government in countries where voting is not compulsory (which is practically everywhere), there are far bigger factors determining outcomes than that.

    I wouldn’t care if it initially led to a Greens government. They’d stuff things up and get booted out soon enough. Compulsory voting is inherently anti-democratic and coercive.

  11. Whilst we’re on the subject of electoral reform; can we get a “none of the above” option for our ballot boxes? If a majority of the voters ask for “none of the above” then all candidates must give up their candidacy and are perhaps executed.

    I also like the idea of randocracy as suggested by fleeced. The fact that someone actually seeks political office should deem them ineligible to hold office for life.

  12. Once I got in power, I’d naturally try to change the rules to keep me there. It’s OK though, I’d be a benevolent dictator… well, at first.

    Fleeced; i think a better term is ‘enlightened’ which translates as libertarian, and gets away from the lefty term ‘benevolent’. Become an enlightened despot rather than a benevolent dictator and I’ll vote for you, well actually I wont have to will I?

    After reading comment 11, I think Ben would make a great attorney general.

    From experience, the initial stages are critical. The removal of opposition tends to be unpopular with the intellectuals as they like being sucked up to by them, this can be countered by a good propogand media wing. Reporters when hand fed don’t feel the need to do their own research and tend to be grateful to you for making your life easier.

    The best time to take over is just prior to the end of the financial year, so that shortly after taking over you can send out tax assessments for 10% of income. Everyone assumes that it is a mistake and pay up immediately before you can find out and correct it, then realizing that it is the real thing start to love you.

    It is critical that you don’t impact on the day to day lives of the population any more than is necessary to ensure that the rights of people are not violated, (except for opposition politicians). I have found that the population tend to get involved mostly in things that impact on their lives to a great degree, and lose interest in those that don’t.

    Thus it stands to reason that if the government has little impact on their lives, the people will not be bothered with it. Hey presto no more worries about opponents, they will be marginalized as eccentrics. Keep it small enough so that when Kerry O’Brien asks some luminary what the government should be doing, the answer will be “Government? We have a government?”

    Lastly I shall deal with fees. Obviously as a dictator, you are entitled to a life of relative luxury, well luxurious opulence, I mean you have to present the right image to the world, don’t you? This is a bit of a balancing act.

    Set your remuneration to a small percentage of GDP, say 1-2%, which while seeming to be relatively modest amounts to a goodly sum. Remember, 1-2% of a booming economy is a lot better than 90% of a buggered up one. On top of this in a buggered up economy people start thinking of political solutions again, and thats the last thing you want.

  13. A de M,
    For as long as I can remember the comment has always been that voluntary voting favours conservatives. People commenting about British elections used to talk about the Labour leader hoping for good weather on election day. I think it is one of those unsaid truisms about elections that perhaps is not mentioned so much now because it is obviously insulting to a certain whole demographic of people. Ie. for the hour it would take to vote they would rather stay inside and keep warm than have an influence on the future of their country.
    I think it is also a truism that voluntary voting favours smaller parties. At the link below some scholar has allegedly done some research on it.
    I’m always surprised why the Greens and the Democrats would be against it. They enjoy compulsion so much that they can’t stop, even when it gets to the point of personally hurting?

  14. I don’t mind the idea suggested by Fleeced for some random factor in the process. We already use randomising techniques to determine the order that candidates appear on ballots. When drawing up the final ballot we could simply elliminate half the candidates at random. That would make the whole process a heck of a lot more fun. 🙂

  15. PJ, regardless of whom voluntary voting favours, IMHO it should always be justified by the fact that forcing an unwilling voter to the ballot box has to be undemocratic. We also have the right NOT to choose, don’t we?


    While we are on the topic of smaller parties, I am very interested to hear if the LDP think that there is a unique opportunity at the moment to increase the profile of the party, and in how you plan to position yourself for the future. One might argue that the coalition are more vulnerable than they have been in perhaps a generation. They are facing a number of headwinds that could potentially be exploited:

    – The loss of a number of high profile figures, federally and in the NSW branch, and consequent confusion/disunity

    – The proposed merger between the Libs/Nats in QLD could potentially provide another distraction. How will core policy for thew new party is carved up between the policies of the previous parties? This could be crucial to how the merger might eventually be rolled out across the nation (if it were to happen). If they were to move to far in the Nat direction, you guys could seriously have some space to exploit, if you were prepared.

    – Of course, being in wall-to-wall opposition doesn’t make it any easier…

    What do you guys think? Is there a strategy in place? Have I overestimated the size of the chink in the coalitions armour?

  16. I am very interested to hear if the LDP think that there is a unique opportunity at the moment to increase the profile of the party

    We don’t necessarily discuss our business here, A De M. This is a public forum.

    Nonetheless, we have had a number of disgruntled ex-Liberals join in recent weeks. We think this will increase for the reasons you mention.

    We would like to think we can fill any gaps created by a merger between the Nats and Libs, but we are still a small party that very few people have heard of. We have to be realistic.

    With the Libs and Libs/Nats looking more and more illiberal, economically and socially, there is a constituency looking for a home. If we do well in the Gippsland by-election, perhaps we will be seen as a viable alternative. (Plug: campaign volunteers and donors now needed.)

  17. Hi David

    I can understand that. I joined the liberal party sometime ago, mainly because:

    – It seemed the most natural home for a libertarian
    – I was not aware of an alternative
    – If I had known about the LDP, I probably would not have joined, as my view was that you need to belong to a major party to make a difference.

    While sympathetic to some policies, I’ve come to realise that, by and large, the Libs do not reflect my beliefs. There is not much there that I feel I can be passionate about. I’ve been following “thoughts on freedom” on and off for a few months. I’m not saying that the LDP is for me, but I am interested in learning more.

  18. Frank Devine keeps making this point- they cannot fine you for not voting, but for not turning up! You can always put in a blank piece of ballot paper. It is an imposition to be forced to turn up, yes, but you don’t have to vote.

  19. No, actually that is wrong, Nicholas. They can fine you for deliberately spoiling your ballot. (And you are also committing an offence by suggesting people do not have to make a formal vote). While finding out who deliberately spoiled their ballot with secret voting is problematic, it is certainly punishable. And shortly we will move to electronic voting in which it will be impossible to make an invalid vote. So kiss your “non-compulsory voting” idea goodbye…

  20. i too personally think that compulsory voting is a contradictory reform in efforts to have a democratic political system come to fruition. I have to give a presentation about why compulsory voting is hurtful to democracy at Santa Clara University but am having a hard time finding credible statistics and figures. If anybody would be willing to help me support the cause please send any and all links with info to my email. thank you. : ).

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