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  • Writer's pictureMichael Murphy

Compulsory voting in Australia

Updated: Jun 10



Compulsory voting
The polling booth. Voting in Australia is compulsory, and while it has some opposition, it has been widely accepted since its inception in the early Twentieth Century

The first federal election in Australia was held on 29 and 30 March 1901, shortly after Federation was enacted on 1 January. While this was a landmark moment in Australian history, at that time, citizens of the new Australian nation were not compelled by law to vote. By the next decade, low numbers at the polling both would promote debate on mandatory versus volunteer voting. The state of Queensland took the lead with compulsory voting, introducing it for their 1915 state election, and by 1924 it had become a legal requirement to vote at all Australian elections, after the government amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. Compulsory voting is a part of Australian political culture that is sometimes challenged, but on the whole widely accepted; looked upon, as aiding the social and political cohesion of the nation. Democratic countries from around the world look to Australia as an example of the benefits of compulsory voting, while others, including people from within Australia, see it as a violation of a citizen’s right to choose.


As Australia embraced its new-found identity as a nation, low turnout at elections may have been something that was not envisaged, but a diminishing number in voter-turnout resulted in the state of Queensland taking the initiative and implementing compulsory voting in 1914, for the 1915 state election. In 1911, the federal government had introduced the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1911, which compelled citizens to enrol to vote, but the introduction of compulsory voting nation-wide did not come until 1924; a point where turnout at federal elections had dipped to just 57.9 percent.



Australian federal election
Australians voting in Brisbane during the 1937 Federal election. Image: State Library of Queensland.

Over time, compulsory voting was adopted as a form of civic responsibility in Australia, with Griffith-Traversy (2002) arguing that a social stigma is attached to the idea of not voting. A number of countries have compulsory voting, of which nineteen (including Australia) pursue the policy through fines and other law enforcement. Other democratic nations, such as: Canada, the USA, and the United Kingdom, do not have compulsory voting, with low turnout in some of these countries illustrating the benefits of the Australian electoral policy.


Voter turnout is a significant positive to the case for compulsory voting. It is not merely a matter of forcing society to comply, but providing that society with the most representative government. Statistics show that turnout at Australian elections has averaged at 94.5 per cent since 1946. In 1925, the year after mandatory voting was introduced, voter turnout was 91.4 per cent, with polling in favour of compulsory voting still remaining high today.


The United Kingdom, on the other hand, saw just twenty per cent of its electorate vote for the winning party at the 2005 election. Furthermore, it has been shown that lower turnouts at elections result in a shrinking of diversity at the ballot box and therefore inequality in representation by government, with the less privileged in society being impacted the most. By contrast, the closely held political ideology in Australia of egalitarianism is enhanced by compulsory voting leading to a greater turnout by marginalised groups. Healey and Warner (1995:20) take this point further, by arguing that the vote is not just “a specific electoral choice, but has profound political and social significance.”


Voting at Australian elections is termed as compulsory, but many claim that it isn’t, and their point is technically valid. In real terms, an eligible citizen does not have to vote, they are just required to turn up to a pooling both, have their name crossed off the electoral roll, receive a ballot paper and then place that ballot paper in the official box. The person may then choose to leave the ballot paper blank, or write something that registers their vote invalid. While many will argue that the person has not voted, therefore making compulsory voting ineffective, others will provide the counter-argument that the person has registered a vote in a form of protest.


In Australia, protest votes are a part of each election but the numbers are relatively insignificant, with Griffith-Traversy (2002:84) stating a percentage of the total vote being approximately 0.5 per cent. Moreover, by being compelled to present themselves at the polling both a particular individual has included themselves cohesively in the society that will ultimately choose a representative. Furthermore, the legally required process of participating in the election may see the ‘protest voter’ choose to exercise the full power of their vote in coming elections due to changed circumstances in their life, or the basic desire to have their opinion registered through a particular political party or Independent candidate.


The validity of an election is another strong argument for the case in favour of compulsory voting. A win by any Australian political party might be close; there may even be a hung parliament, but in some other democratic countries where voting is not compulsory, serious questions can be raised as to how representative the elected party is.


At the 2004 US election turnout was down to just 60 per cent, while at the 2000 election the margin between the Republican and Democrat candidates in the state of Florida was just 537 votes, which is a figure less than the accepted margin of error for the vote-counting machines. Moreover, a non-compulsory voting system can also attract accusations of validity by encouraging the impact of pressure groups and extremists. When these groups are well-financed, they can have a bearing on elections that exceeds their actual numbers in non-compulsory voting nations.


While there is some opposition to compulsory voting, on the whole there seems little evidence to remove it from the Australian electoral system. Opinion polls show good support, there is a high-degree of compliance. It also enhances the strongly-held idea in Australia of egalitarianism through wider representation, while there are no significant, or orchestrated, boycotts of elections.


As it stands in democratic countries, voting remains the single most influential way people can impact on government and ensure fair and equal distribution of public policy. Compulsory voting provides Australians with a consistent and reliable system of electing good government.





Further Reading


Primary sources

Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (2022) ‘Compulsory enrolment and transfer’, Office of Parliamentary Counsel, Canberra, vol. 1 (4), pp. 145-146.


‘Compulsory Voting’ (1911) The Lilydale Express, 30 June 1911, p. 2.


‘Compulsory Voting: The Latest Interference’ (1919), The Sydney Stock and Station Journal, 12 September 1919, p. 12.


‘Compulsory Voting’ (1919) The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 16 Sep 1919, p. 7.


Secondary sources

Bennett Scott (2005) ‘Compulsory voting in Australian national elections’, Parliamentary Library Australia, https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/apo.1410.


Evans, Tim (2006) ‘Compulsory Voting in Australia’, Australian Electoral Commission.


Healey Margaret and Dr James Warden (1995), 'Compulsory Voting', Department of the Parliamentary Library (24).


Lever A (2010), Compulsory Voting: A Critical Perspective, British Journal of Political Science, 40(4), 897-915.


Parliament of Australia (website).


Griffith-Traversy M. A. (Ed). (2002), Mandatory voting: the pros and cons. In Democracy, Parliament and Electoral Systems, 83-88, Pluto Press.


The Case for Compulsory voting in the United States (2007). Harvard Law Review, 121(2), 591-612.

 

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