Compulsory Voting

Australia is well-known for its compulsory voting laws

Voting booth
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Over twenty countries have some form of compulsory voting which requires citizens to register to vote and to go to their polling place or vote on election day.

With secret ballots, it's not really possible to prove who has or has not voted so this process could be more accurately called "compulsory turnout" because voters are required to show up at their polling place on election day.

Compulsory Turnout in Australia's Voting System

One of the most well-known compulsory voting systems is in Australia. All Australian citizens over the age of 18 (except those of unsound mind or those convicted of serious crimes) must be registered to vote and show up at the poll on election day. Australians who do not show up are subject to fines although those who were ill or otherwise incapable of voting on election day can have their fines waived.

Compulsory voting in Australia was adopted in the state of Queensland in 1915 and subsequently adopted nationwide in 1924. With Australia's compulsory voting system comes additional flexibility for the voter — elections are held on Saturdays, absent voters can vote in any state polling place, and voters in remote areas can vote before an election (at pre-poll voting centers) or via mail.

Voter turnout of those registered to vote in Australia was as low as 47% prior to the 1924 compulsory voting law. In the decades since 1924, voter turnout has hovered around 94% to 96%.

In 1924, Australian officials felt that compulsory voting would eliminate voter apathy. However, compulsory voting now has its detractors. In their Fact Sheet on Voting, the Australian Electoral Commission provides some arguments in favor and against compulsory voting.

Arguments in Favor of Compulsory Voting

  • Voting is a civic duty comparable to other duties citizens perform (e.g. taxation, compulsory education, or jury duty).
  • Parliament reflects more accurately the "will of the electorate."
  • Governments must consider the total electorate in policy formulation and management.
  • Candidates can concentrate their campaigning energies on issues rather than encouraging voters to attend the poll.
  • The voter isn't actually compelled to vote for anyone because voting is by secret ballot.

Arguments Used Against Compulsory Voting

  • Some suggest that it is undemocratic to force people to vote and is an infringement of liberty.
  • The "ignorant" and those with little interest in politics are forced to the polls.
  • It may increase the number of "donkey votes" (votes for a random candidate by people who feel that they are required to vote by law).
  • It may increase the number of informal votes (ballot papers which are not marked according to the rules for voting).
  • It increases the number of safe, single-member electorates - political parties then concentrate on the more marginal electorates.
  • Resources must be allocated to determine whether those who failed to vote have "valid and sufficient" reasons.