Tag Archives: election

Election explainer: why do I have to vote, anyway?

The Conversation

Lisa Hill, University of Adelaide

Before too long Australians will be heading off to the polls. As usual there will be complaints from those who object to being required to vote when the majority of Western democracies remain voluntary.

Yet almost of all those voluntary settings are battling escalating turnout decline and, with it, the slow death of representative democracy. Australians continue to enjoy turnout levels that are the envy of voluntary-voting regimes the world over.

Why have compulsory voting?

Australia has one of the oldest systems of compulsory voting. Queensland was the first Australian state to introduce it in 1914, but voting did not become compulsory at the federal level until 1924.

Compulsory voting was adopted to tackle the problem of low voter turnout. At the time, it hovered below 60%.

It turned out to be an extremely decisive and well-accepted remedy. After its introduction, turnout surged dramatically to more than 90% of registered voters. It has stayed that way ever since.

Compulsory voting can therefore improve turnout by up to 30 percentage points. Conversely, when a well-established democratic system abandons it, turnout drops steeply by between 20 and 30 percentage points, as happened recently in Chile.

Critics of compulsory voting often claim there are equally effective, voluntary means for raising voter turnout. But compulsory voting is the only really reliable and decisive means for keeping turnout high. And its effect is immediate.

There are several sound reasons for requiring people to vote.

When everyone votes, governments are more legitimate. People tend to think of democracy as a constitutional form but, really, it is an activity constituted by the political participation of citizens. Unless it is performed it only exists in theory.

There are many ways of performing democracy. But voting is the most-consequential and, arguably, least-demanding method, especially in well-run systems such as Australia’s. Through voting, we sign up to the political community and enter into a partnership with other members so that together we can constitute democracy as it is meant to be:

Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Because the one-vote one-value principle is embodied in democratic practice and ensured through almost-complete participation, voting in Australia is one of the few activities that allow us to express our equality with other citizens and to exercise our interests equally in self-government and self-protection.

This is why participation should be universal. If only a few participate, the political community is only partially and lopsidedly constituted. All must join with all, not some with some, especially when that “some” turns out to be the prosperous and well-educated as is invariably the case in voluntary systems.

Does compulsory voting do any good?

Compulsory voting regimes have lower levels of corruption.

They also have higher levels of satisfaction with the way democracy is working than do voluntary systems. In compulsory voting regimes – where just about everybody votes – government attention and spending is more evenly distributed across social classes.

More evenly distributed government attention means more even wealth distribution. As a result, compulsory voting settings enjoy lower levels of wealth inequality. It is no coincidence that when compulsory voting was first introduced in Australia there was a dramatic increase in pension spending. When everyone votes, governments are more representative.

Some say compulsory voting causes the electoral process to be clogged with too many incompetent and ignorant voters who vote “badly”. Higher turnout, they say, brings a higher proportion of informal and “donkey” votes that distort electoral outcomes.

Some claim that high turnout elections are characterised by a higher proportion of voters who are incapable of even voting in their own interests.

With regard to the last claim, high levels of turnout actually correlate with governments that are more responsive to the needs and priorities of the entire electorate.

That is, governments are more representative and therefore more democratic when everyone votes. So, somehow or other, poorer and less-well-educated voters, no matter how badly they perform on political knowledge surveys, do seem to know what they are doing.

How bad is the ‘bad voting’ problem in Australia?

Informal voting tends to be higher in compulsory voting regimes. This is because people whose first language isn’t English, less-well-educated, and poorer members of the electorate have been brought into the voting process.

These electors, while clear about how they want to vote, have a hard time casting a valid ballot due to factors associated with their disadvantage.

Yet these informal votes do little harm because they are not counted. Therefore, they are incapable of distorting outcomes.

Also, the donkey vote – where voters mindlessly number their ballots from top to bottom or in reverse – only accounts for around 1% of total votes cast in Australia. This is actually lower than in many systems where voting is voluntary such as the US, where the figure has been estimated at between 2% and 4%.

Compelling people to vote seems to increase their political knowledge. This is partly because voters choose to inform themselves when they know they have to vote and partly because the voting process “imparts incidental knowledge”. And it causes that knowledge to be spread more evenly throughout the citizenry.

Without compulsory voting, Australian democracy would look very different. Turnout would likely drop to around 60% or lower and governments would be less representative. There would be lower levels of satisfaction with the political system. The electorate would be less politically informed. We would also have greater wealth inequality and more corruption.

In any case, the majority (more than 70%) of Australians approve of compulsory voting – and have done so for decades. The nay-sayers continue to be a minority.

The ConversationLisa Hill, Professor of Politics, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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How to make Australia’s upper houses truly democratic

The Conversation

By Stephen Morey, La Trobe University

The final count for Victoria’s Legislative Council is still some days away, but it appears members elected from micro-parties will hold the balance of power in the upper house. This will be a challenge for the new Andrews government, but is it undemocratic?

Counting is continuing, but as of December 1, the prediction of the result on the ABC website, based on above-the-line votes counted so far was as follows:

The percentages of votes for the parties, compared with the number of seats predicted, were as follows:

 This result appears to be entirely fair, representing the breadth of opinion in the community at approximately the level that those opinions are held. As just under 18% of people voted for non-major parties (including the Greens and the Nationals as “major parties”), in a rather similar result to the Senate in September 2013, it looks like the voters of Victoria have chosen to have a Legislative Council operating in a similar fashion to the Senate.

There is concern that parties with a very small first preference vote can be elected. This does not necessarily indicate the voting system is undemocratic. In an extreme case, the candidate may be the second preference of all voters.

The problem with the upper house voting system in Victoria is that candidates can be elected by “preferences” that are not the deliberate choice of voters. The preferences are being decided by parties and are not known to most of the voters.

These preferences, the Group Voting Tickets, were available online before the election, and some voters may have looked at them. But most people voted above the line and by doing so handed control of their preferences to whichever party they voted for.

Consider the Western Victoria Region. James Purcell, of the Vote 1 Local Jobs Party, received 1.3% of the primary vote and yet he may be elected as one of five members in that region. The quota – the percentage of the vote needed to be elected – is 16.67% (just over one-sixth of the vote). So Purcell has received most of his support from second, third, fourth and subsequent preferences.

That is also true for the ALP ticket’s number two candidate in the Western Victoria Region, Gayle Tierney, who will be elected. Her first preference support was much lower than Purcell’s. She is picking up a higher proportion of her quota from preferences than he is – most of them from ballots for the ALP’s number one candidate, Jaala Pulford.

Both candidates received a small first preference vote and both get elected as a result of other than first preferences. On the face of it, it seems to be equal. The difference, however, is that whereas we can expect most of the people who voted “1” for Labor above the line were aware that their preference would go to the next Labor candidate, most of Purcell’s preferences come from other parties.

Did the voters for Rise Up Australia, No Smart Meters and Australian Christians – all of whose preferences were first delivered to the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and only later to Purcell – really expect Purcell to be the beneficiary of their vote?

Purcell’s election – if it happens – will be entirely in accord with the current law. And it would be entirely proper and democratic if the people who preferenced him had themselves explicitly decided those preferences. So, let’s reform the upper house so that voters do control their own preferences.

This has already been examined for the Senate by the Federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. In its interim report, the committee recommended the retention of above-the-line voting but the abolition of Group Voting Tickets.

That means that if you voted just “1” above the line, your vote would go only to the candidates of the party whose box you had numbered. If you wanted to express more preferences above the line, you would have to number from “2”, “3”, “4” – as few or as many as you like – party by party. Voters would explicitly decide the preferences among the parties.

The micro-parties could still recommend to their supporters a certain order of preferences, but they would have to communicate that message by handing out how-to-vote cards or by some other means. And if you didn’t like the order your party was recommending – if for example you were a Greens voter in South-East Metropolitan Region who didn’t agree with putting Palmer United Party ahead of Labor – then you would change the order to match your view.

Those who want to order individual candidates would continue to do so below the line – where currently you only have to number one to five.

These reforms, already suggested for the federal Senate by a cross-party committee, would end the backroom deals and preference harvesting and gaming. The only party preferences that would count would be those expressed explicitly by individual voters. And that’s democracy.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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