Compulsory voting in Australia

images-1Is compulsory voting in a democracy a contradiction in terms?

That is the question some Australians have been asking since voting became required by law here nearly a century ago, reports the BBC today.

“The right to vote is a freedom fiercely sought by people all over the world, but Australians do not have a choice. The continent is part of a small minority of just 23 countries with mandatory voting laws. Only 10 of those enforce them.

“Registering to vote and going to the polls are legal duties in Australia for citizens aged 18 and over, and failing to do so can result in a fine and potentially a day in court. Opponents of the system like Libertarian columnist Jason Kent say this stifles political freedom and threatens the basic principles of democracy.

“People have been sentenced to jail terms for not voting. It’s disgusting. It’s far from being democratic. We are not a democracy if we can’t vote democratically.” But Dr Peter Chen, who teaches politics at the University of Sydney, warns that this type of heated rhetoric blows things out of proportion. He says showing up to the polls every so often is not a huge burden.

“The system demonstrates a social expectation that at a minimum everyone needs to participate every few years and that’s a good thing.”

“Failing to vote in Australia may result in a fine or a day in court. Although small, the A$20 (about $18, £12) fine is enough to drive voters to the polls in substantially greater numbers than countries with voluntary vot Supporters of the system say Australia boasts some of the highest civic participation the word over, with a reported 94% voter turn-out in the last federal election, compared to about 65% in the UK’s 2010 general election and an estimated 57% in the 2012 US presidential election. The tides may be changing though, according to Mr Kent, who says high voter turn-out here is overstated. “High voter turn-out is a myth when you consider that 10% of Australians are not even registered. When that myth is debunked, I think you’ll see a dramatic shift in public perception of compulsory voting,” he said.

That number only reflects registered voters who turned out, and although required by law, in recent years voter registration has seen a slight decline, especially among younger Australians.


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