On non-compulsory voting in Queensland state elections

The Queensland Government has opened up a discussion paper regarding electoral reform. It covers a lot of things, but one issue that has been making people take notice is the proposal to remove compulsory voting in state elections, meaning the responsibility of turning up at the ballot booth would become entirely optional.

Many writers have already thrown down their two cents, but I have a few idle thoughts regarding this development.

Whatever your political views, I think that introducing voluntary voting this is fundamentally a bad idea.

Many think that being forced to vote is fundamentally undemocratic, but I think those people are confusing the act of voting as something we’re entitled to, something that we can opt out of if we simply don’t feel in the mood, or don’t like particular parties or candidates, but I think these people are confused over the nature of democracy.

I personally think of voting in a democracy as a civic duty, rather than a right. Hell, you didn’t think we’d get to live in this sweet-ass democratic nation without having to do some work to keep it all spiffy clean, right?

Like paying taxes, voting is a necessary part of the democratic governance and the higher participation, the better. The lower the participation rate, at least for me, the harder it is for elected representatives to claim their mandates, for them to claim they govern ‘for the people’, and potentially lead to a policy debate dominated by narrow political interests.Not to get all doomsday on you, I fear the risk of minority disenfranchisement, where those without time or competing priorities will forgo voting in favour of those activities. A democracy where not everyone participates seems demented to me.

The US is the poster boy for optional voting. But, from the outside looking in, it seems mired with problems that just don’t exist within our system. Do US politicians do anything but campaign for re-election? Getting people out to vote seems a massive distraction within the US political system, and a host of dirty tricks get played by certain state governments in order to benefit certain candidates or parties. I fear the same in Queensland, and would become frustrated at an endless cycle of candidates trying to get people out to vote at elections rather than focus on making good policy.

I’ll touch on some of the arguments wheeled out against compulsory voting.

Many think it’s undemocratic to force people to vote. That may be the case, but the rules in Australia don’t actually force you to vote in a certain fashion. The rules require you to turn up at the ballot box every three to four years. You can (and many do) informally vote. Is this process undemocratic? If it is, then surely we should be given the option of having other civic duties as optional. It would be great to choose where my tax money gets spent, or even pay tax at all. Why should some duties be optional and others not. I haven’t come across a good answer to this.

Another criticism that reoccurs is that compulsory voting systems are somehow representative of an immature democracy. Australia is in the minority when it comes to compulsory voting, but critics seem to continually bleat this fact without giving reasons as to why this is bad.

It seems people within both major Australian parties have views on this – and that view is profoundly against non-compulsory voting. It makes sense, as it has worked well for the better part of 90 years here. I don’t see a reason to change it, and I have suspicions that the QLD government are looking into this.

I’ll halt it there, you can understand my position, but feel free to comment if you’ve got a burning opinion on this. To wet your whistle, here are some views on this issue from politicians at a federal level.