Queenslanders will soon head to the voting booths to either oust or re-elect the Newman government and no doubt some will be wondering why. “Why must I vote or be fined? Why must I be forced to choose who leads my society when I’d rather save myself the trip and stay home?” Victorian Liberal MP Bernie Finn criticised Australia’s compulsory voting laws after the Victorian state election in November. He said: To force people to vote who don’t want to be there, who don’t know what they are doing, is frankly quite ludicrous. While, at first glance, Finn’s claims might ring true, many experts consider Australia’s electoral system to be one of the finest in the world. The majority of Australians apparently share this view: 70% approve of compulsory voting. For decades, compulsory voting has done what it was supposed to do: maintain high and socially even turnout levels that are the envy of the industrialised voluntary-voting world. Prior to its introduction at the federal level in 1924, turnout was hovering in the 50–60% range (of registered voters). Since then, it has remained steady for many decades at around 93%.
The system is easily accessible, well-managed and, despite some rare but highly publicised cases, controversy-free. Without compulsory voting, turnout would be considerably lower at around 55-60% of the eligible population, mimicking similar democracies such as the US or Canada.
Switching to a voluntary system, as recently advocated in The Conversation, would plunge Australian democracy into the same crisis of citizenship that democracies everywhere in the voluntary-voting world are going through: that is, the rapid decline into gerontocracy as voters – especially young people – turn their backs on voting in droves.
While Australia’s young are less inclined to vote than older cohorts, because of compulsory voting 83% of 18-25 year olds still turn out to vote. Compare this to Britain where only around 44% of young people vote, or Canada where the figure hovers at around 37 to 38% or, worse still, the US. There, in the recent midterm elections, only 22% of young people bothered to cast a ballot.