The fruitful Australian Parliamentary Library has come good with a beginner’s guide to compulsory voting issues, which comes equipped with the following panoply of amazing facts.
The Federal Government has enjoyed a minor revenue windfall from the introduction of BPAY for payment of fines, which many non-voters evidently find less tiresome than thinking up an excuse. As a result, total payments following last year’s election topped $1 million for the first time.
A University of Western Australia study (published in 1981, but never mind) found that variables indicating a high likelihood of turnout included "being born in Australia or the United Kingdom, being a professional worker, being employed by government, being over 65 years of age, being a long-term resident of a ‘high-status’ suburb, having a high income, and being in possession of tertiary qualifications". With the conspicuous exception of "being employed by government", all variables are commonly associated with support for the Coalition.
About three-quarters of informal votes appear to be sincere attempts to indicate a preference.
There was a burst of enthusiasm for optional preferential voting when a self-proclaimed Nazi nominated for the Federal seat of Australian Capital Territory at the 1970 by-election, won by future Whitlam Government Attorney-General Kep Enderby. A check of Adam Carr’s Psephos does not turn up an NSDAP candidate at said poll, while Google is silent on the two under-performing independents, Edwin Bellchambers and Edward Cawthorn.
Compulsory voting exists, after a fashion, in more countries than you might think. They include Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, Greece and Singapore as well as the more frequently cited Belgium. Many don’t enforce it, but in Cyprus the fine for not voting is "200 pounds", which I gather to be as serious as it sounds. Greek voters who fail to perform their civic duty can find themselves unable to obtain a passport or drivers’ licence.
Even without compulsory voting, the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater presidential election saw the United States outperform the Australian norm with a turnout of 96 per cent. What followed was a steady decline to the nadir of Clinton’s re-election in 1996 (63 per cent), followed by a quite impressive recovery to 73 per cent last year. (UPDATE: See below).
A 1991 MORI poll found 49 per cent of British voters supported the introduction of compulsory voting, compared with 41 per cent against.
The turnouts for Tony Blair’s two re-elections (59 per cent and 62 per cent) have been far and away the lowest for any British election since World War II. There was a noticeable dip at the 1970 election that delivered an unexpected defeat to Harold Wilson’s Labour Government – folklore has it that working class voters stayed at home as they were shattered by England’s World Cup semi-final loss the day before.
After the abolition of compulsory voting in the Netherlands in 1971, turnout fell from levels comparable with Australia (95 per cent) to between 73 per cent and 88 per cent.
UPDATE (1/11/05): The figure quoted above regarding turnout at the 1964 United States presidential election, which the Australian Parliamentary Library sourced from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, raised a few eyebrows among commenters. David Walsh points to more detailed figures that suggest the 95.8 per cent figure was arrived at by dividing the number of votes by a sum of the states’ registration figures – even though the latter figure was zero for 11 states, and Ohio somehow had more voters than registrations (on this measure, its turnout was 105.7 per cent). IDEA’s page on methodology used says:
The user of this data base will notice that in some instances the registration rate (REG) for a country actually exceeds the estimated number of registered voters (VAP). The explanation for this apparent anomaly usually lies either in the inaccuracy of the electoral roll, or in the estimated number of eligible voters (VAP). In some countries, the roll is extremely difficult to keep up to date, and deaths or movements of elections from one district to another are not reflected in the roll, something which is a common problem facing electoral administrators around the world. On the other hand it is important to emphasise that the registration figures are, in most cases, more recently updated than population figures. The VAP is based on the most recent population census figure available, although not an exact figure, it is a reflection of the demographic trend and estimated population growth of a country.