A lot of democracies use this quaint notion that you only vote if you feel like voting. The United States, the UK, etc., have voluntary voting. Then people from those countries look at Australia and “Tsk Tsk” because we have mandatory voting, which is more akin to say, Iraq in the time of Saddam.
Personally, I find that a specious argument. It’s a bit like trying the reductio ad absurdam of Godwin’s Law. You can’t lump two countries together with wildly different cultures, policies and levels of democracies, just on the basis that they both do mandatory voting. (Or did, in the case of Iraq. I’m sure that’s been Americanised by now.) And if you want to, well, America and Venezuela must be exactly the same because they both have presidents!
I got into a discussion about Australian mandatory voting a few nights ago on the train with two people I know who happen to be from Europe. For both of them, their countries have voluntary voting, and they both hauled out the same argument I hear all the time – mandatory voting leads to a large number of informal (read: invalid, or in the Australian vernacular, donkey) votes.
According to Wiki, the current rate of informal votes is currently sitting at around 5%. So, 95% of people who vote don’t donkey vote. That’s pretty good. When we compare it to America, Answers.com tells me that voter turnout sits around 58%.
95% vs 58%. Even if not a single American issued an informal vote, the per capita level of formal votes in Australia would significantly eclipse that of the United States.
So when people tell me that mandatory voting leads to a high percentage of donkey votes, and I talk about the actual percentages, I’m told that voter dislike to mandatory voting is hidden in valid, yet apathetic random votes. That’s where someone walks into the ballot booth, numbers a random box and hands it it. It almost reminds me of the Chinese Room Test.
My gut tells me this isn’t the case. If you had a sufficiently large proportion of the voting population doing random yet valid votes (one might argue syntactically correct yet semantically invalid), then this randomness should be observable in the election results. Even if the randomness is sufficient to avoid actually affecting the primary votes, it should show in crazy swings between elections in the minor parties or the percentage swings between the major parties. This does not happen.
So, the two “logical” reasons to avoid mandatory voting in terms of informal votes just don’t really stand up to the observable results.
What other arguments are there?
Well, the other core argument is that it’s a violation of human rights. That in a democracy, the option of not voting should also be an option. This gets hauled out frequently. Hmm, being a bit of a smart arse, I’d rather have mandatory voting instead of easy gun ownership and a violent popular culture, but that’s another argument to be had another time.
On the issue of human rights, I ask – do you accept that you have to pay taxes? If you feel you shouldn’t have to, then you either believe we should live in a utopian society without money, or you strike me as being amazingly selfish.
If you agree that people have to pay taxes and thereby contribute financially to the running of the country they live in, then that’s already a mandatory obligation. Or, to put it another way, it’s part of the social contract. We are helped by, and protected by society, in return for fulfilling some basic obligations. You didn’t sign it? No, they don’t tend to ask people to sign contracts as they’re born, but the simple fact is that while society is obligated to us, we too, are obligated to society.
Quite simply, we have freedoms, but with freedom comes obligation, and it’s disingenuous or selfish to think that you can have freedom without obligation.
I know people who have donkey voted all their adult lives; such things happen. And you know what I do whenever they start complaining about a politician? I tell them to shut the fuck up. I’m not interested in hearing them bitching about a premier, or prime minister, or minister for X, when they don’t vote. Blunt? Yeah, and deservedly so.
Mandatory voting is a valid part of the Australian political landscape. You know the joke that when you go to other countries, you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics? Well, in Australia you shouldn’t discuss sport or public holidays. Religion is an easy topic because Australians for the most part are happy to discuss religion without wanting to beat the shit out of you. Equally, Australians will discuss politics because they participate.
The final argument I then hear is that mandatory voting props up two party systems. Yeah, and having voluntary voting has done wonders in the United States on that front. You have the Democrats, and the Republicans. Let’s count them, hmm? One. Two. What about the Tea Party? Well, you’ll always get bigots with the IQ of a tea pot in any democratic election. And you’ll equally get people who rise above the two party system and want to pull the world into a utopia, too. You’ve got the same sorts of bigots and philosopher-kings in Australia as well.
I look forward to being required to vote for the rest of my life.