Earlier this week, I made a very quick post about three things I think Australia could borrow from the US in order to improve our democracy. One is to scrap mandatory voting.
Granted, that’s not really something stolen from the US: most of the rest of the world does not have mandatory voting. Just 32 countries worldwide have mandatory voting, and only 19 actually enforce it (in Australia, this comes by way of fines if you fail to vote).
There are several fundamental problems with mandatory voting. The first is that it pushes parties to the centre. Rather than needing to moblise their bases, they simply have to appeal to the small portion of the population that swings, in the small population of districts that swing. Consequently, policy is shaped in a way that is designed to offer advantages to those small, swinging populations. It also means that governments can become lazy in the way they govern. They aren’t accountable to the base, because the base has nowhere really to go. Perhaps, if Australia had a genuinely strong third-party, it wouldn’t be such a problem. But we don’t, and the Greens claims otherwise are absurd.
But beyond the practical outworking of mandatory voting, there is a fundamental problem: mandatory voting ensures that people who are not interested in the political process, and do not engage with the political process, significantly effect the outcomes of elections. Australia has a very low standard of political reporting, virtually no political blogosphere, and generally, a low level of political engagement. I have no empirical evidence to support this, but my suspiscion is that the Australian apathy toward politics is in part due to mandatory voting, much the same way I’ll happily read a book until it’s assigned to me for uni, in which case I’ll resent the fact I have to read it.
It’s especially absurd that one is required to vote in local council elections. With the quick decline of local press, and with minimal reporting on local issues, how can one make an informed decision?
Mandatory voting, rather than ensuring all people have an equal say, ensures the status quo is maintained. It makes it exceptionally difficult to challenge our two dominant parties. And the current state of the NSW government bares witness to the fact this is a fundamentally bad thing.