I’ve voted in three elections since turning 18: the trifecta of council, state, and federal. I did this because I’m interested in politics and want to have my vote count—but also, I would’ve received a fine if I hadn’t cast my ballot. That’s because Australia is one of 27 countries in the world that has compulsory voting. If you’re on the electoral roll, you have to vote. In light of the recent U.S. presidential election I want to explain why I think compulsory voting should be implemented everywhere.
Don’t get me wrong—I know there are downsides to compulsory voting. Most importantly, Indigenous people have voiced concerns about being forced to participate in electing a power that exists because of colonization. It’s the only argument against compulsory voting I’ve heard which unquestionably stands up. No current system is perfect, but I believe that compulsory voting ensures more equitable election outcomes than optional voting—which benefit everyone.
One of the main arguments that Western countries use to disparage Australia’s compulsory voting laws is that mandatory voting is undemocratic. The idea of making anyone do anything is touted as inherently un-American. I personally think democracy works pretty well when you expect everyone to vote; the outcome really is down to the will of the majority. I’d argue that the American electoral college system, gerrymandering, and mass voter suppression are far more undemocratic than compelling everyone to vote.
Personal feelings of anti-Americanism aside, compulsory voting doesn’t actually force anyone to vote if they really don’t want to. All you have to do is submit a ballot. That ballot could be blank or filled out so that it’s invalid—you just have to get your name ticked off and put a piece of paper in the ballot box. So if you’re opposed to involving yourself in the election process, compulsory voting doesn’t actually make you participate.
Another problem with optional voting is the sheer cost associated with elections. To run for president in the U.S., you need an obscene amount of financial backing—and plenty of that money is spent trying to get voter turnout. With compulsory voting, there’s no need to spend campaign money on convincing people to vote. In the 2016 presidential election, candidates spent roughly $3.6 billion dollars on their campaigns. Australia held a federal election in 2016 and approximately $80 million were spent. Even accounting for the difference in population size, those are hugely disparate amounts of money—money that could be invested elsewhere to benefit the community, or at least help politicians understand what voters need from their representatives.
Parties inevitably create policies that cater to those who will vote for them. There’s a clear incentive to propose policies that will win parties or candidates votes. In the United States the poorer and younger you are the less likely you are to vote. People of color are also less likely to vote than white Americans. This means that parties are less likely to develop and implement policies that benefit young, poor people of color. In turn, young and poor people and people of color are disenfranchised and less likely to vote because they rightfully feel let down.
While many of my friends are let down by our government too, conversations around election time are not centered on whether we’re voting but for whom we’re voting. We’re forced to be somewhat politically conscious, aware of the candidates running and their policies.
The U.S. has one of the world’s lowest voter turnout rates. Studies have consistently shown that Republicans are more likely to vote than Democrats, but that if all American citizens voted, Democratic candidates would win presidential elections far more often. Donald Trump won the 2016 election with the support of 26.3% of all adult Americans. This result alone demonstrates the need for higher voter turnout.
I know there are varied issues with access to voting in the U.S. Holding elections on a weekday is a problem, for starters—not to mention the current rhetoric around mail-in ballots. I think there are some foreign ways of holding elections that the U.S. could benefit from adopting, like a nationally consistent voting method—so no matter what state you’re voting in, your ballot looks the same and you fill it out the same way. Allowing for pre-poll voting would also mean that people who work on Tuesdays can still vote in person, and it would reduce lengthy lines.
Due to the recency of the U.S. election, I’ve focused specifically on U.S. politics in this article. However, it isn’t only in the U.S. that non-compulsory voting has led to disastrous election outcomes—I’m looking at you, Brits.
Compulsory voting actually works against my interests a lot of the time. Australians consistently vote in conservative federal governments who refuse to act on climate change and cut funding to just about everything in the name of the free market. Even so, I’m glad that everyone is given the opportunity to vote. Governments in Australia can’t simply ignore protesters, as they know we will be judging them at the ballot box.
I’m not American, and I have no plans to ever live in the U.S., but I do have a vested interest in the outcome of the presidential election. Unfortunately, the status of world superpowers means whoever leads the U.S. affects all of us. It might not seem like it in your day-to-day life, but elected officials and the decisions they make impact your future. Voting shouldn’t be a privilege afforded to a small majority who allow the system to uphold their power.
By Madeleine Burgess
Illustration by Ashley Setiawan