Monday, 30 December 2013

Why you should have to vote

Democracy is good right?

We should be able to vote for whoever we want.  And we should be able to not vote if we want, too.  Right?

If a dictator is elected with 99% in a "fair" (only fair to the dictator in question) election, we laugh and say "how silly, that's not democracy!".

But let's look at the US, a beacon of freedom and democracy: in 2008, amongst the "Yes We Can" and "Change" campaign, Barack Obama was elected President in a landmark election.  He won 69,498,516 votes.  That's a lot.  And he won 52.9% of the vote, a very solid percentage.  But here's the rub: only 61.6% of eligible U.S. voters actually voted.  So?

That means only around 32.6% (52.9% of the 61.6% who voted) of eligible voters actually voted for Obama.  So, for all the fanfare, the speeches, the significance, and the excitement of Obama's election, over 67% of voting-age Americans did not vote for him.  What sort of representation is that?

And guess what?  61.6% is actually a high turnout.  It was the highest since 1968.  Bush won in 2000 with just 26% people voting for him (47.9% of the vote; 54.2% turnout).

In the US, as with most nations, there is a system of "Voluntary Voting", where a person can not only choose who they want to vote for, but also whether they want to vote at all.  Some people would argue that we shouldn't *have* to vote if we don't want to, and that "Voluntary Voting" is the way to go.

This is not the system in Australia, in which we are one of the few nations that implements "Compulsory Voting", where people are fined if they don't vote on election day.

If people don't want to vote, why should they have to?  Don't we get better outcomes if only people who want to vote, actually do so?


Evidence does not suggest that voluntary voting leads to better outcomes.  Are the US or UK better off than Australia?  Not in terms of economic, health or education outcomes. We live longer, have a stronger economy, have a strong public health and public education system (for primary and secondary school, and HECS for public tertiary education).  Compulsory Voting does not preclude us from these desirable outcomes.

And yes, Compulsory Voting is good.  Here's why we are lucky to have it, here in Australia.

The idea of "liberty" and how Compulsory Voting forces people to do something they're opposed to is fundamentally built on a falsehood.  Voting is not like choosing how many drinks to have, which smartphone to buy or which footy team to support.  And it shouldn't be compared to those, because it profoundly cheapens what voting is.  Voting is on a fundamentally different level to other "choices" we have in our everyday lives.  The outcome of an election will determine the nation's direction in its deployment of the Armed Forces, the decisions of spending of taxpayer dollars by the Treasury, how Law and Order should be exercised on our streets, how we approach foreign nations in our diplomacy, and so on.

It is fundamentally about the greater good of the nation.  And that's why it isn't the same as other everyday choices, which generally affect a very small number of people, by comparison.  As such, it should be a duty shared by all in the population.

Your freedom and liberty in voting is that you can:
  1. vote without fear of persecution or violence for your choice (unlike here, here, here or here, as just a few examples from 2013 alone);
  2. vote in a secret ballot;
  3. vote for any of many candidates, from an array of parties (there were around 40 parties in NSW for the 2013 Senate Election);
  4. vote for no candidate, but not filling in any boxes.
Or if none of the above options appeal to you, you have the ultimate freedom: stand for office yourself.

In few countries, in any era of history, have all in a population had the right to vote freely in regular elections.  Regardless of gender, race, religion, political belief, income, you have that right.

Just imagine how few people in the history of mankind can say that.

Compulsory voting ensures that all Australians get to have their say, and in particular, that minorities and disadvantaged groups are not disenfranchised.  In particular, the Inter-American Development Bank found in an analysis of 91 countries during 1960-2000 that Compulsory Voting improves income equality, and that "it might make sense to promote such voting schemes in developing regions".

In Australia, because of Compulsory Voting, there need to be special measures put in place to ensure that people can get to the ballot box.  This means that we have Saturday elections, and that the Australian Electoral Commission goes out of its way to help you to vote.  They've got you covered if on election day you are: working, traveling interstate, traveling overseas, ill, in hospital, pregnant (and due shortly), in prison, or if a religious custom/belief prevents you from voting on that day.

Voluntary Voting systems around the world fail to implement many of these measures, meaning that chunks of the population are simply not represented on election day, because of a physical, health, geographical or religious impediment. 

In addition, because Voluntary Voting means much lower voting numbers at elections, it means that lobby groups can wield a greater influence, as they can try to convince a small section of the population (who otherwise would not have voted) to get to the polls, and change the outcome.  That is much harder under Compulsory Voting.

Finally, there is the argument that Compulsory Voting means candidates simply pander to the lowest common denominator, in particular the voters who have zero interest in politics, and would never consider voting under any other circumstance.  As such, political debate descends into mindless slanging matches.  However, it would be madness to suggest that debate in Voluntary Voting nations is any better.  I'd like to see the evidence of that.

There is much more incentive for improved education, political engagement and economic literacy in a nation with Compulsory Voting.  In Voluntary Voting, the disinterested and disengaged can be left alone, whilst in Compulsory Voting, they need to be engaged by understanding of who and what they are voting for.

Society runs on incentives, and there is little incentive under Voluntary Voting to try and engage the disengaged.  In essence, if you want to improve the level of political debate in a nation, you need Compulsory Voting.

Okay, we should get to vote, but it's such a burden and waste of time!  Check and mate, Mr I-Love-Compulsory-Voting!

Well, that depends on your definition of "burden". 

In Australia, you have to vote at a Federal election approximately every 3 years, and in a State/Territory election every 4 years (except Queensland, which is 3 years).

That means, that every 12 years, most Aussies have to vote 4 times Federal, and 3 times State/Territory.  7 in total (8 if you're a Queenslander).

Is 7 or 8 hours every 12 years that much of a burden?  You decide.

No comments:

Post a Comment