What are your views on compulsory voting? I think I’m in favour of it. I’ve always been surprised that right leaning parties don’t try to get rid of it in Australia. I’ve always assumed that it’s in their interests to have voluntary voting as I assume the left leaning parties have fewer resources to draw on and voluntary voting means that far more of parties’ efforts go into getting people to the poll. Anyway, a friend of mine who was standing for the Senate in the Liberal Party this election says that it’s not so, that the Libs live in fear of the the financial and organisational muscle the ALP gets through the unions.
It irks me that government can be determined by people so unmotivated that it requires a law to get them into the polling booth. Yet if I look at the US I can’t believe their politics wouldn’t be fairly different if they were putting less energy into ‘energising their bases’ and more into appealing to the apathetic as they do in Australia. But who knows – plenty of countries with voluntary voting seem to have relatively sane political cultures.
Thinking of arguments in favour of compulsion, I always thought that the best argument was to say that it wasn’t compulsory voting. It’s just a levy people must pay if they don’t visit the polling booth – what’s the fine these days $40? – to balance up the cost of the trip to the polling booth. Is this semantic nonsense. I don’t think so. Once you’re in the booth, there’s no compulsory voting. It’s compulsory to attend the booth. One might argue that, if one is to presume people’s rationality, that one should subsidise people who make the trip – since it’s not rational to do so (one’s chance of influencing the result is to small for it to be rational to turn out). But that would be far more inefficient for a range of reasons than the obverse of that – which is to fine (sorry, ‘tax’ or ‘levy’) those who try to free ride on others’ efforts and don’t turn up.
I’d add that I’d strongly suspect that subsidising voting would also have nasty ‘behavioural’ implications. Like the childcare centre that moved from moral suasion to fines to stop people turning up late and then found more people turned up late – because the fine had normalised and ‘economised’ the transaction – so subsidising voting would undermine the civic spirit and spirit of self-expression that keeps most people voting – even in the US. So there you have it – the complete defence of the Australian system of compulsory voting.
For a similar defence, see Peter Singer on the same subject.
On reading Singer’s argument – essentially the ‘free rider’ argument I’ve produced above – indefatigable econoblogger, Mark Thoma of “Economists’ View” says this.
As much as I’d like to see turnout go up, I can’t support compulsory voting. It’s not because of any worry that voters will be uninformed, irrational, or anything like that, it’s more that it seems like an impingement on freedom.
But it isn’t. It’s a levy on those who want to free ride on others efforts to supervise their own governance. It just gets them to the booth – then they’re as free as a bird.