Compelling arguments

Derek Chong, Sinclair Davidson and Tim Fry go in hard against compulsory voting in a paper for the Centre for Independent Studies’ Policy journal, entitled "It’s an evil thing to oblige people to vote". Good economists all, the authors characterise compulsory voting as "a wealth transfer from those individuals who would not vote, and from the Australian Electoral Commission, which expends substantial sums of money tracking down individuals in order to enrol them to vote, to political parties". They also cite various legal precedents to muddy the waters for pedants who argue that Australia has "compulsory attendance at a polling booth" rather than "compulsory voting". In partisan terms, the study concludes that compulsion is bad for the Coalition, broadly neutral for Labor (except insofar as what’s good for the Coalition is bad for Labor), good for the Greens and independents and a disaster for the Australian Democrats.

Tip of the hat here to Andrew Leigh at Imagining Australia.

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.

8 comments on “Compelling arguments”

  1. take away compulsory voting and the ‘wealth transfer (!!)’ to the political parties and those same political parties will place more emphasis on pre-selecting people who are especially effective in raising money and bam! You have an electoral system where the richest man wins, just like the good ole usa.

    It’s a crap system, but it’s sure better than the other options.

  2. Chong, Davidson and Fry’s paper is interesting, but doesn’t exactly provide a compelling case for voluntary voting. In particular, they give no particular philosophical argument as to why compulsory voting is a bad thing. In some places, also, their argument seems flawed.

    1. They say that the precedents show that the ‘Turn up but make your vote informal’ system of not voting is illegal. This is probably true enough, but any such law is unenforceable as it would interfere with the secrecy of the ballot. A legally unenforceable law, realistically, isn’t a law at all.

    2. Their analysis indicates that in the past four elections, the Coalition’s vote increases under a voluntary voting model and that the eventual result would not have changed. As they don’t have data for elections the Coalition didn’t win, they can’t (as they point out) say whether this is an innate Coalition benefit or simply a benefit to the winner. This is hardly good enough evidence to back up a wholesale change to the way our democracy works. Furthermore, the fact that the four elections they study would not have had different results under a voluntary system doesn’t mean this could never happen.

    In the end, in a tight contest it is best to have as large a pool of electors as possible, to prevent swings due to not turning out. This better reflects the will of the people, a point in favour of compulsory voting Chong et al do not adequately address.

    3. “Our analysis indicates that those individuals who don’t understand how to engage with compulsory preferential voting would not vote under a voluntary system.” Is that a good thing? Shouldn’t we educate them instead of just writing off their political say?

  3. An interesting publication but I am loathe to describe compulsory voting as a wealth transfer from the AEC to political parties. In the same way I wouldn’t automatically call anti-smoking campaigns a wealth transfer from the Quit campaign to health insurers/smokers. The question of whether it is a legitimate transfer must be considered in terms of ‘who should pay’ or ‘who is the more appropriate person to pay’ and maybe ‘who is most likely to pay, or ‘who is most likely to benefit’. And let’s face facts, the AEC isn’t exactly threatening Coca-Cola’s advertising budget in their pursuit of electoral education.
    Secondly, the authors seem to think that if each of the arguments the AEC proposes in support of compulsory voting isn’t entirely without blemish then the principle is flawed. The fact that an argument for something is weak doesn’t turn it into an argument in favor of the contrary view.
    The fact that people are obliged by legislation to mark their ballots doesn’t mean that the result doesn’t reflect the will of the people or that people are not taught the benefits of political participation. Obviously not everyone will reap these benefits but many will. I have no difficulty in reconciling the strictures of judgements on the Act with the aims of the principle stated previously. One deals with method and enforcement of violations by a tiny minority, the other with the hopes for the majority.
    Again, to suggest that a few examples of pork-barrelling undermines the concept that compulsory voting encourages parties to consider the entire electorate is stretching things. What policies parties campaign on might perhaps be more instructive. Are these skewed towards marginals or do they have broad appeal? Are non-marginals being neglected? The allocation of resources to marginals is a rational act in political economy – it is not an argument for voluntary voting.
    The conclusion enlists the Leader of the Opposition in support – but is it really evil to force people to vote (using the word ‘evil’ is likely to get you compared to George W in politics nowadays)? Is this really about individual liberty? If so, there’s probably quite a list of obligations which infringe on individual liberties – payment of tax, service on juries etc. Are we prepared to scrap all societal obligations in the name of liberty and merely become nothing more than a collection of individuals – or do we live in a society with mutual obligations?
    IMHO the only real argument in favor of compulsory voting is the sheen of legitimacy it gives to electoral results which in turn reinforces our societal structures – legislative, judicial and executive. This obviously promotes harmony in society because people have accepted the legitimacy of these institutions as a result of an expression of the common will – tainted though perhaps it may be by some token compulsion.

  4. As we have public funding of political parties, perhaps an economist could argue that with voluntary voting we’d have to fork out even more (and more inefficient) dollars for the parties to get their supporters out.

    The trio spend spend half the paper splitting compulsory turnout/voting hairs. Perhaps William’s next JSCEM submission could include a recommendation that the Act make it clear: you must have your name crossed out and put the ballot paper into the box etc etc, but you don’t have to vote for anyone. Better still, a ”none of the above” option on the voting paper.

  5. Just finished reading it, and thought it was interesting, but didn’t really put much of a case for voluntary voting. I pretty much agree with what others have posted above. It argued quite well that the current laws regarding voting required people to mark there ballot. However as Triangulum an unenforceable law isn’t really a law.

    The ‘considering the total electorate’ segment I thought had alot of holes in it. Given the only argument was that the pork barrelling was only targeted at marginal seats. However with volutary voting there would still be a similar amount of marginals, with the UK and the US systems both having marginal seats/states which recieved plenty of pork barreling. Unless we move to a proportional representation system (which has its own problems) there will always be tight contests which will result in pork barreling.

    Virtually all of the authors concerns could be addressed by a minor change to electoral laws allowing informal votes to be legal (though given the secret ballot it isn’t really needed), or as Peter mentioned a ‘none of the above’ option.

    oh and I dont think it would matter what system was being used, the democrats are all but dead.

  6. Peter, I’d be a bit worried about a none of the above option. What happens if someone votes 1 John Smith 3 Jo Bloggs 4 Aaron Aaronson 2 None? You’re just making a hard system harder. I think just a nice clear instruction that says: “Number as many boxes as you have preferences for. You do not need to fill in any box.” (Obviously implied in that is OPV.)

  7. This is a weak attempt to mask the libertarian presumption that any compulsion is ‘evil’.

    Take the ‘wealth transfer’ argument. Are constituencies in say the US House of Reps or the Commons that much less identifiable as ‘safe’ or ‘marginal’, especially with modern polling methods? Do the authors imagine politicians, govt ones especially, would not respond to the need to get out the vote with lures to target the new marginal voters (ie those whose propensity to vote is ‘tippable’ through bribes)?

    Second, the speculation on benefit to the Coalition – an argument I’m sure one Nick Minchin has been making behind closed doors – is just that. The opposite thesis is equally sustainable: compulsion tends to help the status quo and party in power: which federally is the conservatives. That is magnified with a PM adept at appealing to the apolitical. Compulsory PREFERENTIAL voting in turn dampens any vote leaching that would otherwise occur through lukewarm government voters switching to a protest vote (cf compulsory OPV). My hypothesis is that this effect applies at state level as well: in the last 20 years, Australian governments have all but been guaranteed at least 3 terms. I’m not saying compulsion determines this, just that combined with a relatively stable society and economy, and significant incumbent benefits (advertising etc), compulsion reinforces conservativism.

    Personally I’m strongly in favour of testing vol voting on future referenda: there’s a much stronger argument that we should leave complex constitutional questions to those who take an interest in them; but every person has an equally valid opinion on the question that tends to decide elections (ie are you/things better or worse off than 3 years ago?)

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