though the Howard government has indicated pretty clearly that
compulsory voting will continue for the foreseeable future, debate on
the issue continues. In the summer issue of Policy, journal of the Centre for Independent Studies, three RMIT economists – Derek Chong, Sinclair Davidson and Tim Fry – argue strongly against compulsion.

large part of their argument is devoted to what I have previously
dismissed as a red herring: the idea that it is not actually compulsory
to vote, but only to turn up at a polling booth and be crossed off the
roll. Many supporters of compulsion seem obsessed by this point, but
Chong, Davidson and Fry are the first I have seen to argue equally
obsessively against it.

They marshal impressive evidence to show
that both the electoral commission and the courts regard the actual
valid marking of a ballot paper, not just showing up, as the subject of
compulsion. This is interesting, but fundamentally it is a side issue.
For most people, the requirement to attend a polling booth is the main
inconvenience; exactly what they are compelled to do once they are
there is important only to a few pedants.

Chong, Davidson and
Fry also have a very interesting discussion of the political effects of
voluntary voting, although unfortunately the data is hardly adequate to
the purpose. They rely particularly on ANU’s Australian Election
Survey, not necessarily a representative sample. But for what it’s
worth, they find that voluntary voting would be a significant advantage
for the Liberal Party and the Greens, and would hurt independents, the
National Party and (to a lesser extent) the ALP.

Since the data,
such as it is, only extends back to 1996, the authors admit that “we
are unable to state whether our results favour the Coalition, or the
government of the day.” And since, as they point out, “Compulsory
voting reduces the costs to political parties of getting out the vote
and allows them to concentrate resources in marginal electorates,” it
is likely that any move to voluntary voting would change the behaviour
of the parties, making results all the more unpredictable.

And Christian Kerr writes:

The Policy piece throws up some
fascinating findings.

On the authors’ estimations, voluntary voting would have produced a
higher vote share in the House of Representatives for the Liberal
Party. However, they also conclude “In each of the last four elections,
the Democrats and the Greens would have had a higher vote share if
there had been a voluntary voting regime. The Democrats are huge losers
under the current compulsory regime.”

As good little libertarians, Chong, Davidson and Fry condemn compulsory
voting as “a form of paternalism”. Other supporters of voluntary voting
– high profile Howard Government
Ministers, for example – may not have such innocent motivations.

According to Chong, Davidson and Fry their modelling shows that “the same
government, following much the same policies, would have been elected
at each of the last four elections” under a voluntary voting regime.

Others beg to differ. You can follow some of the debate the item has
created here.