To vote or not to vote

Having just had a national election in Australia and with the US primaries in full swing, it’s an appropriate time to discuss what the best way to implement democracy is. In particular I’d like to discuss the issue as to whether voting ought to be mandatory or not. This is one of the key differences between Australia, where voting is mandatory, and most other countries, like the US. While this may appear to be a moot point, it actually has very significant effects on voting dynamics in a country. The most outright argument against mandatory voting is the whole issue of personal freedom, which is a more than reasonable argument. However, emotive arguments aside, whether voting is mandatory or not has a big impact on how people vote and how candidates play their cards in the lead up to an election.

In Australia the lead up to an election generally consists of character bashing and debating a small number of highly significant issues. For example, in the recent Australian election there was an large amount of attacking candidate’s characters, plus an enormous amount of argument on the issue of ‘WorkChoices’, a set of largely unpopular labour market reforms implemented by the previous Liberal government. In the US the dynamics are quite different. Candidates know that only about 30% of the eligible population actually bother to vote, so election campaigning largely revolves around how to mobilize voters since this represents the biggest untapped pool of potential supporters. This has opened the door to enormous influence by special interest and lobby groups. Most notable is the influence of right wing Christian groups in the US, whose primary aim is to mobilize Christian voters to turn up to vote. The same applies to many other special interest and lobby groups. Other notable examples are the National Rifle Association, pro-Israel groups and women’s rights group. In Australia we generally don’t see such influence by special interest groups. Most notably, although Australia has a strong Christian base, they haven’t been mobilized into a coherent political force the way they have in the United States. Australia’s primary Christian lobby group, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), doesn’t achieve much more than sending out monthly newsletters to promote Christian views in Australian politics. Mobilizing voters as such isn’t possible since everyone already votes. Instead the ACL has the more difficult task of taking people who already vote and trying to convert them to vote as the ACL suggests. This is a much more difficult task, and even if they succeed in winning over a large number of voters, this has comparatively less effect since 100% of the people are voting.

In my mind the non-mandatory voting system can completely skew political power in a country. The power of pro-gun, pro-Israel and Christian groups does not reflect the demographics of the US. Effectively, by exploiting the fact that most Americans don’t bother to vote, special interest groups can seize political control of the country.

The question is, what is more important, the freedom to choose whether to vote or the absence of industrial scale influence from special interest groups. On one hand I would cherish my right not to vote, although having a democracy perverted by Christian fundamentalists, gun-toting nuts, fanatical pro-Israel groups, or anti or pro-abortion extremists is quite unsavory indeed. All up I think the later is a bigger perversion of democratic ideals than having the right to not vote.

4 thoughts on “To vote or not to vote”

  1. You make a lot of good points. I generally do not like lobby groups.

    I prefer mandatory voting because it gets people involved. If you don’t want to vote, you don’t have to actually mark the ballot — who would know, after all? But you are out there and I think it gets people thinking about things. There might also be people who probably have an opinion but can’t be bothered voting because they can do without the inconvenience. People have to remember that the country belongs to them. They ultimately have to run it, in a way. I can see the personal freedom angle, but it’s not like we are talking compulsory military service or something of that nature. That, coupled with the fact that in principle you don’t have to mark the ballot I think takes care of things.

    PS. In the last Australian federal election, the QLD senate ballot was HUGE! 65 boxes if you wanted to number the candidates. In the 2004 election, I numbered all 50 boxes, but I couldn’t be bothered with 65 boxes, so I just voted above the line. I fail to see why all boxes have to be numbered. By the same token, I can’t see why only one number can be placed above the line.

    Such is life, I guess.

  2. Good analysis, Peter. Do you know if lobby groups have the same influence in other countries where voting is not mandatory? It seems to me that the US is probably the worst example of the problems you describe. If it’s not as bad in other similar countries (e.g. the UK), how do they avoid it?

  3. It’s a good question how things stand in other countries with voluntary voting. The US is a special case because it seems to be more politically polarized than many other countries.

  4. I have to say, I have to think through this more. But not HAVING to vote stops government from playing big brother.. to me Im thinking it could possibly stop political apathy. If this happened pray it would breed less apathetic voters and we all wouldnt have such a dim, tortured, under represented understanding of politics in Australia. As my friend in nz, once said, ‘only those who want to vote, will vote’, which is the interesting thing about it. This leads to a question of motivation. How would you motivate people, on the day, to actually vote… ?. Surely , I see people and lots of people just ‘forgetting’ to vote. So it may become harder, representing voters. And if we want to live in a democracy, thats of utmost importance. To me, the question is about that question of motivation. So, in that sense, I agree that I think that it is a good thing that we are made to vote. I really don’t believe that we should necessarily be fined for not voting. This is my personal opinion – but I dont believe in that and I see it as a reflection of one of the problems within the system. It also seems sympomatic of ‘over regulation’ to me. From my experience, we are an overly regulated country. Lastly, if you think harder , the principle or idea behind this discussion is about choice, in general, in many regards. ‘public’ /vs choice. in ways, it’s one paradox of the ‘democracy’. Lastly I have a question. Do they have voting ‘exemptions’, aside from those just not enrolled? Is this up to the party or is this a part of ‘statute’/governing theory/law.

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