Why Australians Must Vote on Election Day


After Australia’s 2016 federal election, a parliamentary committee urged the country’s election commission to investigate the worryingly low voter turnout, saying the trend may signal trouble for the health of its democracy.

The turnout in question: 91 percent.

In the U.S. presidential election that same year, barely 60 percent of eligible Americans cast a ballot.

Australia is one of a couple of dozen countries, including Belgium, Brazil and Peru, whose citizens are legally required to vote. Those who fail to do so are subject to a fine of 20 Australian dollars — about $14 — which can balloon with repeat offenses or if the fine goes unpaid.

Voters may have their fines waived if they have a “valid and sufficient” reason for not turning up to vote.

Australia’s election commission says compulsory voting is a “cornerstone” of its democratic system because it incentivizes candidates to cater to everyone in the electorate, not only to those more engaged. Some in the United States have cited it admiringly, including Barack Obama, who noted in a 2015 speech that those who are less likely to vote are disproportionately young, lower income, immigrants or minorities.

“It would be transformative if everybody voted,” he said. “That would counteract money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country.”

Surveys in Australia also indicate that without the mandate, voter turnout would be uneven. Less than half of those younger than 35 say they would definitely vote without the requirement, whereas 71 percent of those 55 and above say they’d still go to the polls, according to the Electoral Integrity Project.

The law, which has been in place since 1924, enjoys broad support, but isn’t without its detractors.

Some who are dissatisfied with the choices they’re given cast what’s known as a donkey vote, where they rank preferences for candidates on the ballot in the order in which they happen to be listed. (The “reverse donkey” is another protest vote, ranked from bottom up.)

One politician in East Gippsland Shire, in southeastern Australia, Ben Buckley, said in local media reports that he had refused to vote since 1996 — including in races in which he was a candidate — because he believed that it was an illegal coercion by the government.

“If you’ve got a right to vote, you should have a right not to vote,” Mr. Buckley, a bush pilot, told a Melbourne newspaper in 2015, saying he had lost count of how many times he’d been hauled before a court for failing to vote.

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