Nine reasons you never cared about compulsory voting

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.

    Author: William Bowe

    William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

    7 comments on “Nine reasons you never cared about compulsory voting”

    1. 96% turnout? In the US? In one of the most lopsided presidential elections ever? I was immediately inclined to be sceptical. And as it turns out rightfully so.

      This site has the figures here:

      The first thing you notice that it’s a % of registered voters and not voting age population.

      Which would be fine except that it’s including a lot of people in the voters column (voters that turned out) that it’s not including in the registered voters column. Notice the number of states with ‘0’ registered voters; that inflates the final figures. And then there’s Ohio’s 106% turn out…

      I’m not sure whether that means there were a lot of unregistered voters voting back then or what. But that figure is really not a percentage of anything.

    2. According to wikipedia, the turnout was more like 61% of the voting age population in 1964. As it points out some 10% of the voting age population is normally not able to vote (aliens, felons etc.), so the true figure would be somewhere around 70% in the end.

    3. Good work everybody. The APH study got its figures from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance:

      David Walsh has correctly diagnosed the problem here, i.e. voter registration figures of zero for 11 states. No idea what the story is here. Essentially, the measure of voter turnout as a percentage of registered voters is of little use for purposes of comparison, because registration is compulsory in Australia and voluntary in most other places.

    4. Is there any indication the British government is considering introducing compulsory voting?

      If so, would it pass the ultra conservative House of Lords?

      Such a scenario would certainly deflate the proponents of voluntary voting in Australia.

    5. Hi William,

      You mentioned two independents in the 1970 By-Election, however there were three: James Pead with 14.4% of the vote.


    6. Sceptic: To my knowledge there is no indication the British Government is considering compulsory voting, but if there was it would not have to pass the House of Lords. The only power it still has is to delay the passage of legislation – I believe the deal is that bills may be presented for Royal Assent after a given time period even if they haven’t been passed by the Lords.

      Ronald: I said there were two underperforming independents. 14.4 per cent is pretty damn good, and certainly more than a Nazi could hope for in Canberra.

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