Politics

Americans Are Getting A Lesson On Australia’s Voting System Ahead Of Their Mess Of An Election

"Some serious proud Aussie compulsory voting patriotism going on in the replies to this. Gonna cry."

election preferences, senate voting, election

An idle tweet from an American filmmaker has spurned a fierce defence of one of the cornerstones of Australian democracy: compulsory voting.

You might not realise it, but our insistence that people actually have a say in who runs our country is an anomaly — around the world only 26 countries have compulsory voting, and most of them don’t even bother to enforce it.

Famously, America does not force its citizens to vote. In fact, in the last few weeks people have raised plenty of concerns about whether their government actually wants them to vote at all.

Last month Donald Trump flat-out admitted he opposed extra funding for the United States Postal Service to make it harder for people to vote by mail — something that millions of people are expected to do for the Presidential election in November, due to the pandemic. In the US many states require ballots to arrive at an election office before election day to be counted, yet the Postmaster General (yes, that’s actually his job title) has been accused of cutting funding to the post office to intentionally slow down mail.

That’s not to mention the fact that they’ve literally started removing mailboxes from the streets in some states.

On top of that, in America it is illegal for anyone with a felony conviction to vote in an election — something that disproportionately affects overpoliced black communities thanks to racial bias in the criminal justice system.

With the stakes extra high this year, American interest seems to have been piqued by our system of compulsory voting.

Ron Howard is an award-winning filmmaker responsible for movies like A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man (both featuring Australian not-born-but-bred Russell Crowe — guess that topic of conversation never came up).

This week he asked for an explanation of how Australia’s voting system works, and since we love any opportunity to make ourselves feel big on a world stage we were more than happy to oblige.

Naturally people cut straight to the chase with our most important election day tradition: the venerated democracy sausage. I mean, democracy itself is great, but let’s not pretend you’ve never lined up at a polling booth only to find yourself more annoyed at the lack of a sausage sizzle than the lack of quality candidates.

Others took the opportunity to troll the hell out of the question, because it’s 2020 and at this point nothing sounds too unbelievable.

Why Does Australia Have Compulsory Voting?

If you think compulsory voting is a pain in the ass, take a look at places that don’t have it.

Only one quarter of eligible people voted for Trump in 2016 — meanwhile, one half of voters didn’t bother to cast a ballot. Thirteen million Brits didn’t turn up for the Brexit vote — the Leave camp went on to win by 1.2 million votes.

Australia introduced compulsory voting in 1924 (but it wasn’t made compulsory for Indigenous Australians to vote until 1984, 22 years after they were given permission to do so voluntarily).

Aussies were quick to jump onto Howard’s thread to talk up the benefits of compulsory voting — it’s enough to make you feel downright patriotic.

One benefit of compulsory voting: it makes it easier for new candidates to contest seats. They don’t need to waste time or money convincing people to vote, so they can focus on campaigning about important issues.

Another: it keeps people engaged in politics, even as we grow more disillusioned with it. People are less loyal to one party than they were ten years ago, but instead of turning away from politics altogether they’re voting for alternatives like independents and minor parties. We may not always like the result, but it does give people outside our established political class a greater opportunity, and in turn expands our political spectrum. It also reduces the likelihood of extremists from either side dominating the field.

OK yes, we did have that eight-year period when we steamrolled through six prime ministers in quick succession. I didn’t say we’re perfect, alright.

Some argue that compulsory voting forces ill-informed people to vote, or just encourages donkey votes. It’s a fair point, but so is the fact that countries with higher voter turnouts have higher levels of satisfaction with their democracy.

But if someone is truly determined not to vote, of course no one is forcing them to tick any boxes.

Our electoral commission and our House of Representatives even got involved in the thread, and reeeeally leaned into as many colloquialisms as they could.

Im summary: please appreciate your vote, because we are very lucky to have it.