Australia is one of only 10 countries in the world that enforce compulsory voting, and one of only two majority-English-speaking countries to do so, alongside our neighbour Singapore. It’s a policy that activates loud bleating of complaint from the neo-libertarian crowd. Their opposition to compulsory voting is usually expressed in the identical vocabulary of waaaaaaaaaaah as their resistance to wearing seatbelts, educating their children with other people’s children, not plastering stores’ shelves with titty-porn, and being told they really shouldn’t smoke in front of a baby. Compulsory voting is also opposed by politicians keen to attack it for partisan advantage. As recently as the last Liberal government in 2004, the infernal former Liberal senator Nick Minchin had to be stopped from within his own party from removing a provision that has been our nation’s democratic backbone for 89 years. We can all be grateful that, at least in this instance, everyone’s favourite Liberal-of-last-resort, Petro Georgiou, found a flaming sword of sufficient brightness to banish Satan back to his cave. Liberals of Minchin’s ilk have realpolitik reasons to campaign against compulsory voting. In the vast majority of countries where voting is optional – especially the liberal democratic states of the West most demographically similar to our own – it’s a long established fact that voting turnout is massively concentrated amongst those communities with higher levels of education, urbanity, wealth, health, control of their own time and the other privileges of inherited social capital.
The voters who tend to vanish are, of course, poor, isolated, minimally educated, sick, low-paid, casualised or vulnerable. In other words, those with the least to gain from a party like Minchin’s, which has an electoral appeal focused on the connected rich and those believing they may yet will be so.
Compulsory voting was not the initiative of city-slicking socialists, but a Nationalist Party MP in a Coalition government – Herbert Payne, a backbench senator from Tasmania. His private members’ bill posted on 16 July 1924 was in response to low voter turnout in the 1922 election, in which only slightly less than 60% of eligible Australians cast a vote. It was voted up unanimously by all members in both houses in less than an hour, and made into law within a fortnight. Australia has maintained a 90%+ voter turnout and arguably the most enfranchised Washminster democracy in the world ever since.
What made the early parliament of this country unanimous in its support of compulsory voting wasn’t that it lacked a right-wing libertarian fraction devoted to the cause of dressing like the sidekicks on Jackass, pig shooting in national parks and whinging to Twitter “because freedom” if they can’t buy MILF mags at a petrol station. It was the understanding that compulsory voting isn’t so much about the state making the people vote, but the people making the state accountable for enabling universal access to the vote.
While voting remains compulsory, that the whole nation is obliged to go to the polls, so must the polls go – physically and practically – to the whole nation. This is why, unlike other countries, we have simple electoral enrolment procedures, voting on weekends, easily-organised postal-voting, ballot boxes in nursing homes and hospitals, an independent electoral commission, and a system that must consistently identify and remove obstacles to voting.