Australia’s Compulsory Voting System; Is It Good or Bad?

My first ever vote as an Australian citizen was almost 3 years ago back in March 2012. That was for the ‘local’ Queensland elections, although let’s put local into perspective. You can fit seven UK’s into Queensland; it’s that sort of local.

At that time, the Liberal National Party (LNP) quite literally thrashed the Australian Labor Party (ALP) winning the election by 78 seats to the ALP’s 5. It was one of the biggest landslides in Australian political history. For more on that see my post One Man; One Vote. Queensland Decides.

On Saturday I was off to the polls again…

election 2015Local elections are much simpler than federal elections, remember this? This is the ballot paper from my first federal election, I wrote about it on my post How Does Australian Preferential Voting Work?

The ballot paper

First, here’s the extreme left…

Left Senate Ballot FormNow here’s the centre…

Centre Senate Ballot FormAnd finally, the far right…

Right Senate Ballot Form

The ballot paper for this local election was much simpler though…

voting slipA pleasant surprise.

The real surprise though, was when news of the result started to filter through at about 10 o’clock that night. Most of the polls were suggesting that the LNP would retain power, but to find out what’s really likely to happen, I prefer to look at what the bookies are saying.

They have to get their prices right, otherwise they lose money. Bookies don’t like losing money. Here were the odds available the night before the election.

Betting

  • LNP: 1-10
  • ALP: 7-1
  • Others: 250-1

The result

  • ALP – 42 seats
  • LNP – 38 seats
  • Katter’s Australian Party – 2 seats
  • Others – 1 seat

Some votes are still being counted, but the current prediction is for the ALP to win three more seats, which would give them 45 out of the 89 seats they need to form a majority government.

It’s been an incredible turnaround. I’m not sure if those kind of odds have ever been overcome in a UK election, but it happened here over the weekend.

Compulsory voting in Australia

That night I was down the pub watching Australia beat South Korea in the AFC Asian Cup Final which was, incidentally, a result we were expecting, or at least hoping for. I was chatting to one of my mates and we got onto the subject of the days voting.

He told me he had no interest in politics, knew nothing about it, didn’t care either, and would have preferred not to have to vote at all. Quite frankly, he said, he didn’t know who to vote for.

Spoilt ballot

I did mention that he always had the option of spoiling his ballot paper, that’s completing it incorrectly. There are many ways of spoiling your ballot paper, for example you could mark “1” in every box or not mark any box at all. When that happens your vote will not count, it’s called “Informal Voting” here and around 5% to 6% of voters take this option.

My friend didn’t want to do that, so here’s what he did instead. He asked his wife who to vote for. She suggested he vote for ALP because she was a nurse and the ALP have promised not to reduce frontline jobs.

I’m not knocking how my friend made his choice, but it does make me wonder how many people forced to vote do so without really knowing what they’re voting for or why they’re really voting for it.

I understand that Australia introduced compulsory voting when the turnout dropped to as low as 28%, does that mean we are forcing over 60% of Australians to vote when they don’t really want to?

Is compulsory voting in Australia a good thing or a bad thing?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I have just witnessed one of the most surprising election results I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

What is your view on compulsory voting? Do let me know in the comments below…

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Chris February 9, 2015, 6:08 am | Link

    I have lived in both UK and Australia. I didn’t bother to vote in UK except when first turning voting age. It wasn’t compulsory and I had no interest in “boring” politics at the time. I was not educated about the political system and I thought it clever and amusing to deliberately ignore the “System”. Plus I was too lazy to bother to vote. When I came to Australia, where voting is compulsory, it definitely made me THINK more about my choice (as with your friend, who at least asked his wife). It’s a privilege to have a voice, imperfect as it is, in decisions which affect everyone’s daily life and future. People fought hard to vote in the past and, despite its many flaws, the system means citizens can control extreme political craziness ! If we want to enjoy the rights and benefits of life in a modern democracy, why shouldn’t we have some responsibility laid on us? Not ignore elections because we’re too lazy to walk to the polling booth (there is always postal voting) or neutral because we haven’t made the logical connection yet that policies can directly affect us and our family in crucial areas like health, defence and education. My only disappointment, though, is the way the media in Australia is not as balanced and intelligent as in the UK.

    • BobinOz February 9, 2015, 6:54 pm | Link

      I think this is why I have concerns about compulsory voting. When I was younger, I didn’t vote in the UK either, couldn’t care less. I probably started voting in my late 20s when I did care.

      And I think there is a significant group of people, particularly in the 18 to 25 bracket, who just don’t care but are forced to make a decision. My concern is how much effort they put into making that decision.

      My hunch is that compulsory voting isn’t doing Australia any favours, but it is only a hunch.

  • Jason February 3, 2015, 11:39 am | Link

    We should all have the same free and equal right to vote, free from government coercion. Our decision to vote should be democratic.

    If our ‘leaders’ needed to inspire people to vote instead of relying on the use of force, maybe more people would vote. Australian voter turnouts are only 80%. Many people submit invalid ballots and as many as 10% are not registered to vote. Others pay a fine. Our VAP (voting age population) turnouts are lower than many countries including Sweden, Denmark, Iceland.

    The reason out politics is starting to flip flop from left to right is that both sides have converged to the centre. People can no longer tell the difference and our elections turn on pithy issues and personalities.

    Democratic systems tend to have political parties that are more diverse or polarised, which represent the diversity of the electorate. They brings the gap between left and right. Undemocratic systems tend to have a more centralised power structure such as ours. This makes it very volatile to swings in public opinion. And while they are so uninspiring this breeds mistrust and hatred in the electorate.

    If they had to inspire us to vote, the democratic way, we would get better leaders. Leaders who aren’t scared of offending the swinging voters at the centre, who wouldn’t vote if not forced.

    • BobinOz February 3, 2015, 9:23 pm | Link

      Yes, I’ve seen those figures as well, 10% of people not registered to vote who should be on the register. So that does bring our turnout to the low 80% area.

      As for the idea of far left far right, the same happened in the UK, I think most notably in the mid to late 90s, you couldn’t really tell the difference between left and right, there wasn’t much difference between Tory and Labour. It’s probably not much different now over there either, other than UKIP are now in the mix.

      Like a famous politician of years past, I too have a dream. It’s a world where politicians genuinely want to do what is best for their electorate.

      Anybody know where we can find one of those these days?

      • Kamma February 3, 2015, 9:53 pm | Link

        In the slightly crazy-sounding, teeny-tiny parties? I usually vote for them, just so they can yell their slightly extreme, but usually good and well-meant, views just that bit louder.
        They don’t have a hope in heaven of getting in, so they’re not motivated by greed and power, like you might get from the bigger parties. That’s my theory, anyway.

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