It is not unduly cynical to say that the Howard government will only
move towards ending compulsory voting if it thinks that it will be to its
political advantage. Indeed, most politicians will form opinions on the
issue based overwhelmingly on its political effects. For the electorate
in general, however, there will be more interest in the rights and
wrongs of such a move.

The first point is that the onus of proof should always be on
proponents of compulsion, in any field, to show that it is necessary.
The presumption should always be that people should be allowed to do
what they want unless there are sufficient reasons for stopping them.
Sometimes the reasons are obvious: laws against murder, traffic rules,
and so on. Others are less clear.

Anecdotally at least, the main reason people seem to support compulsory
voting is that they dislike the consequences of low turnout in other
countries, specifically the United States. They do not stop to reflect
(and may not know) that voting is optional in most well-functioning
democracies: for example, in New Zealand, Canada, Britain, France,
Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. Granted that the
American political system is largely dysfunctional, the fact that the
malaise has not spread universally suggests that optional voting is not
the prime culprit.

It is argued that voting should be regarded as a civic duty, like
paying taxes or serving on juries. But those things are compulsory not
because they foster a sense of community (although perhaps they do),
but for strictly practical reasons. It is not obvious what equivalent
practical benefit is being gained from compulsory voting.

Compulsory voting is popular in Australia, but I have yet to meet
anyone who says they feel more a part of the community by being forced
to show up at a polling booth; their thinking is more that others would
neglect their duty if it was optional. But like moral choice of any
sort, the fact of being forced devalues it to some extent. Treating the
vote as a duty makes us less likely to see it for the precious right
that it is.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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