Compulsory voting

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.

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Politics - international. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dave Bath
13 years ago

Compulsory voting has my vote! Although, perhaps you should be disqualified if you have already influenced the outcome using cash – by a political donation! Again, if ownership of land used to be the qualification, and intellectual property is now more important, perhaps (in the spirit of the Citizenship Test) there should be a test of intelligence and key policy issues by electoral officers before voting is permitted. I wonder whether this idea wedges the intellectual elites?

Neil
Neil
13 years ago

Compulsory voting violates peoples right to choose. The same way laws violate my right to get drunk, speed past a school, rape , pillage, murder etc.

To live in a democracy is not only about rights it is also about responsibilities.
I believe in voluntary voting, if you choose not vote then having given up your responsibility to democracy you should lose your rights. No free education, no free medical, no pensions, no welfare and no tax deductions.

Dave Bath
13 years ago

Jacques – My tongue was firmly in cheek apart from supporting compulsory voting. I’d note, however, that with a measurable IQ of 80 (based on tests appropriate for deaf children), the great apes that have been taught sign language are probably more capable of informed voting than a signficant proportion of registered votes (average IQ=100, standard deviation about 20 to 25, with about 15% of humans more than one stddev below the mean).

Dave Bath
13 years ago

JC: My “15%” comment was for the benefit of those who (unlike you) may not be aware of the splits in the normal curve. Actually, the curve for intelligence (or any human capability) has a left hand skew, because accidents and mutations tend to more damage than good.

Aah, applying “Great Apes” to those expelled from the ALP is too unkind to our hairier cousins. Perhaps “troglogytes” is better /cheap intellectual snob shot

murph the surf
murph the surf
13 years ago

Is it compulsory to be on the electoral roll?
If you can absent yourself from the roll maybe voting isn’t compulsory in Australia.
Big if there but I wonder if a reader knows about this possible option?

conrad
conrad
13 years ago

Compulsary or not, there should be laws against tying other things that are not related, like jury duty (or far nastier things that have happened historically, like conscription), to it. It seems to me a great disencentive to vote if you are going to be roped into other things that are not related to it.

The Doctor
The Doctor
13 years ago

if I look at the US I cant believe their politics wouldnt 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.

Nick, I think you will find if you look at those relatively sane political cultures a few things in common – such as impartial electoral authorities and fair boundaries. What makes the USA look insane is the partisan interference at all levels – the only saving grace is a peaceful acceptance of change when it comes and the statistical fairness that comes from having a patchwork of overlapping jurisdictions with varying degrees of partisan bias.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

Compulsory voting ensures that the party in power is the party we prefer, not the one that has the resources to mobilise voters on election day. Individual rationality says it’s not worth voting because my vote is highly unlikely to make any difference, and mild compulsion gets around this. Anybody who doesn’t want to express a preference can vote informal. It’s no more of an infringment on freedom than traffic lights.

Brendan Halfweeg
Brendan Halfweeg
13 years ago

Compulsory voting is an infringement on liberty, any argument to the contrary is frivilous. The right to vote is a more important safeguard against bad governance than compulsory voting, which simply leads politics down the path of compulsory populism and pork barrelling.

The best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with a typical voter, and Australia forces these people to vote. To remain ignorant is a right and a choice, but to force anyone to be ruled by the choices of the ignorant is a crime of the highest order.

Even more important than the right to vote in preventing bad governance is the size of the state, smaller states having significant less scope for harm than behemoths like the Australian Federal Government. The less the government does, the less it can stuff up. And it will stuff up.

Tex
Tex
13 years ago

Compulsory voting is an immoral infringement on personal liberty. I’ve never seen a single argument for it anywhere that shows otherwise

The Doctor
The Doctor
13 years ago

Compulsory voting is an infringement on liberty, any argument to the contrary is frivilous. The right to vote is a more important safeguard against bad governance than compulsory voting, which simply leads politics down the path of compulsory populism and pork barrelling.

The best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with a typical voter, and Australia forces these people to vote. To remain ignorant is a right and a choice, but to force anyone to be ruled by the choices of the ignorant is a crime of the highest order.

Brendan,
both populism and pork-barrelling are extant under any voting regime, and there are plenty of ignorant voters who vote voluntarily. Are you also advocating dictatorship in your second paragraph – it certainly looks like it!
I agree that the right to vote is clearly more important than making it compulsory, but claiming that going to a voting station, spending a few minutes placing numbers in boxes and placing the completed papers in an appropriate box – is an infringment on liberty is strange, particularly when those actions are also regarded as a privilege!
I do wish people would make up their minds –
Voting is either a right and privilege to be exercised or infringement on liberty – it cannot be both!!

Brendan Halfweeg
Brendan Halfweeg
13 years ago

The Doctor Said:

Voting is either a right and privilege to be exercised or infringement on liberty – it cannot be both!!

Read what I wrote:

Compulsory voting is an infringement on liberty

and note the first word in the sentence and then substitute almost any activity for the word “voting” and see if you still object.

The Doctor
The Doctor
13 years ago

Brendan,
I’ve the thought experiment you requested!

First : I require two scales
a) a Pleasure/Pain index of +/-10, and
b) Loss of Liberty index of 0-10 where 10 is an indefinite loss of liberty.

Second : Let us consider the ultimate gilded cage;
Compulsory detention at a 6-star South Pacific beachside resort with all expenses paid for and anything can be brought in for indefinite periods, but you are limited to the confines of the resort.
Ratings – P/P +10, LoL 10.

Third : Let us consider its opposite on P/P scale;
Compulsory detention in a windowless dungeon, fed just enough to keep you alive etcetera, with random torture sessions and knowing that your family & friends will be undergoing the same treatment.
Ratings – P/P -10, LoL 10.

Your exercise, should you choose to accept it, is to rate compulsory voting on those two scales.

Brendan Halfweeg
Brendan Halfweeg
13 years ago

This is pointless Doctor, you clearly don’t understand the nature of liberty.

Trivialising loss of liberty by comparing imprisonment under different circumstances is a strawman of the puerile kind.

The Doctor
The Doctor
13 years ago

Brendan,
Taking an argument to its logical extreme tests how strong it really is – haven’t you heard that reductio ad absurdem is a valid method of proof.

Brendan Halfweeg
Brendan Halfweeg
13 years ago

Doctor, I’ve never mentioned whether voting was a hardship or not, only whether compulsory voting is a loss of liberty. You agree with me on this point, so this particular argument is over.

The only argument remains is whether we consider the loss liberty important enough to protest or not. I am enough of pragmatist to recognise that there is a lot more wrong in Australian government so as not to focus unduly on compulsory voting, but that does not mean I will not argue against it when I hear stupid arguments like your prison paradise versus prison hell argument.

Taking your principle of reductio ad absurdem to point, what is the end game if I refuse to cooperate with the authorities regarding compulsory voting out of principle? The state would be obliged to fine me then gaol me for refusal to pay, or at the very least issue me with a suspended sentence. The absurdity of the compulsory voting argument is that I would be gaoled to protect my democratic right that would be subsequently denied to me while imprisoned!

Compulsory voting might be a small stupidity of the Australian political system, but it is still a stupidity.