In one of my pieces last week on compulsory voting, I added the words “or, to satisfy the purists, ‘compulsory attendance at polling booths’.” But this has not stopped pedants writing in to tell us that “compulsory voting” is a complete misnomer.

Like most pedantry, this is literally true but substantively irrelevant. Yes, the actual obligation is that you have to show up at a polling booth, get crossed off the roll, or else provide some excuse for why you haven’t, or pay a small fine. No, it’s not especially onerous, but it’s not made any less onerous by pointing out that you don’t have to actually mark the ballot paper that they give you. “Compulsory voting” is the universal and obvious shorthand term for it.

More generally, the opponents of optional voting do not seem to have come up with any new arguments. Peter Murray points out that “allowing optional voting would allow more people to say that the Government lacks legitimacy.” That’s true, but I think the argument cuts both ways. A government elected on a 90% turnout might look more legitimate than one elected on 70%, but if the extra 20% vote only under threat of a fine, isn’t that extra legitimacy an illusion?

Other correspondents note that compulsion isn’t confined to voting; Brian Mitchell mentions “compulsory tax-paying… compulsory testing to get a driver’s licence… compulsory attendance at jury duty.” But that misses an important point. These other compulsions are universal across the developed world (or the jury-using world, in the last case); rightly or wrongly, there’s a consensus that they’re necessary for society to function. But compulsory voting is confined to Australia and a handful of other places (Belgium and a few South American countries are the main examples – there’s a useful summary here.

Nor is it a recent innovation we’ve made, that the rest of the world might be yet to catch up to. Other democracies have had plenty of time – since 1924 – to look at the idea, and they’ve decided they don’t want to follow suit. We shouldn’t be afraid to admit they might be right.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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