In the United States, if the idea of letting corporations vote in elections gets talked about at all, it’s usually as the absurd logical end point of treating companies like people. Not so in Australia. In many cities across the country, business owners and landlords have long enjoyed the right to participate in local elections, even if they live out of town. (Imagine if a pizza parlor owner from New Jersey could vote in the New York City mayor’s race because he had a location in Manhattan, and you’ve got the picture.) This month, an intriguing political fight has been brewing over whether businesses in Sydney should be required to vote in municipal elections. At the moment, conservatives are pushing a controversial bill that would compel business owners and landlords to cast ballots in city council and mayoral races—a move widely viewed as an attempt to oust the current mayor, Clover Moore, a popular progressive. The controversy, to be clear, isn’t over whether businesses should still get the vote. It’s just about whether they should be forced to vote.
As Marian Sawer and Peter Brent recounted in a 2011 paper, Australia’s odd tradition of corporate enfranchisement is a holdover from its 19th-century colonial days. Early in the country’s history, men could vote wherever they owned property or a business, or paid enough rent. Everyone else was barred from the ballot box. In the 1850s, the country moved to universal male suffrage, and over the next half-century or so, property and business owners lost the ability to vote in multiple jurisdictions during federal elections. But in local politics, the right of out-of-town business owners and landlords to cast a ballot lingered on.
“One might assume that by now property votes would be a thing of the past, safely consigned to the rubbish-bin of history, along with the exclusion of women, Indigenous Australians and the poverty-stricken from the franchise,” Sawer and Brent write. “This is indeed assumed by most people, but in fact property votes are still flourishing everywhere in local government in Australia except in Queensland and the Northern Territory.”