Monday, May 01, 2006

Since when was a free choice compelled?

The Institute for Public Policy Research has issued a report saying Britons should be forced to vote in elections. So once again the solution for declining voter turnout is seen as forcing people to the polls.

In a free democracy people have the moral right to not participate in voting. And the level of voter turnout is often a reflection of engagement. There is no point just making voting compulsory and pretend that it will solve the problems of political engagement in this country. That would be like using a sticking plaster on a broken limb.

One country that does have compulsory voting is Australia. Now whilst that country has some good features (at the last election they elected Mr. Howard as Prime Minister!) compulsory voting may not be the best thing for the country's politics. Here are a few comments from a mixture of blogs:

Dispatches From the Moderate Left says:

The other major practical argument for a compulsory franchise is that when voting is voluntary the people who are least likely to vote are poor and marginal social groups and that it's important that these people's opinions have an effect on political decisions. This seems persuasive, but I'd question whether it has any real effect. There are countries with voluntary voting which do much better for their poor than we do (see my upcoming picture of the week). I don't think there's persuasive evidence that forcing marginalised groups to vote leads to better outcomes for them.

A final argument put forward for compulsory voting is that there's nothing wrong with forcing citizens to take half an hour every three years to participate in the voting process. Voting, like taxation, is a social duty which is rightly enforced by the government. This argument looks circular to me. Sure, the state can make people do a whole lot of things if it wants to and call them civil duties, but unless there's some practical benefit then it's kind of pointless. Taxes get government money. Forcing people to vote does what? Educates them about the voting system? Makes people less apathetic? Improves voting outcomes? I don't think it does any of these things.

There's still enormous amounts of apathy among the general public about politics most of the time and the extra attention that compulsory voting creates around election time just encourages the sort of middle class spending bonanza which burdens us with the private health care rebate, the baby bonus, rural spending rorts and 3 yearly bribes for old people. Coverage an attention focuses on whether or not such and such a demographic will be financially better off under which party and there's no constituency for spending restraint and reform (did anyone complain about the baby bonus except to say that it wasn't enough money?). The race for the vital center, from what I've seen in Australian elections, is just a race to spend the most money on middle class groups who may be able to swing marginal seats. It's not political moderation and it's certainly not appeals to poor/marginalised groups who might not vote if voting was voluntary.

What's more, making a lot of a-political people vote means that the chance of irrational voting patterns is even higher than in other countries. By irrational voting I'm talking donkey voting or voting for the guy who has the best campaign image/five second sound bite. Literally half of the people I spoke to after the last Australian election voted for Howard because Latham was ugly and/or did that really weird handshake thing. Sure these people have a right to vote because of these things if they want, but I don't think that increasing the number of these sorts of votes is a good policy outcome.
The Thin Man Returns' take on this is:

I believe the stunningly low standard of political candidates in Australia is due almost entirely to compulsory voting. If the parties really had to fight to get voters out, they would be more interested in being truly responsive to the electorate and fielding quality candidates.

As it stands, with many voters leaning left or right 'because me dad did' (or 'because me dad voted for the others') or simply because they like or don't like the look of a candidate, the advantage of non-compulsory voting is, quite frankly, that it allows morons who'd vote according to the above or any other daft reason to voluntarily disengage from the process and leaves the selection of government to those who actually care and think criticially about how they cast their vote.

I suspect this would result, over a period of time, in higher standards of political discourse generally.

I might add the above concept isn't original - I saw it advanced many years ago with reference, I think, to voting in the Netherlands. The comment was to the effect that one could trace the level to which government was engaging effectively with the people by the level of voter turnout. Parties and governments used turnout as a kind of barometer which showed that if turnout was falling, they needed to lift their game.

Here in Australia, however, why try to lift your game? You can keep fielding the same old tired candidates and young cannon fodder with no worries because turnout is guaranteed to be high - on penalty of a fine.
And a British take from The Right Way:

We can see compulsory voting in operation in Australia. The result has been that the parties don't have to worry about turnout. The reason why Lynton Crosby's antics were so successful in Australia is that if Party A destroys the credibility of Party B, the public still has to vote for someone - apathy or abstention is not an option. So how better to vote for than the only party left with any credibility. It creates a vicious circle leading to more and more negative campaigning.

Moreover as the parties know that the 30-40% of the electorate who are forced out to vote, have no real interest in the body politic, and therefore no party allegiances, they adopt populist "dog whistle" issues to grab that floating vote. The result is that issues like immigration become the key swing issue in an election campaign, and are always played in a mean spirited way.

In what way is this form of politics something for us to aspire to?
For those not familiar with the Australian election system, they use the Alternative Vote for the House of Representatives and the Single Transferable Vote for the Senate. Combined with compulsory voting this produces some of the worst cast votes of all.

Informal voting is when a voter does not number every box on the ballot paper with their order of preferences. If a voter does not use all their preferences their vote becomes invalid. Donkey voting is when a voter simply numbers the ballot in the order in which the candidates are listed - is this really a voter participating wisely in the democratic process?

Because of this many parties will print "How to Vote" cards indicating how they want their supporters to use their transfers. That works for the House of Representatives where the voter can be faced with up to a dozen candidates (who are now listed in random order following a plethora of candidates with surnames beginning with "A" getting elected). But for the Senate a voter may have to decide between getting close to a hundred candidates. The solution is to allow a voter to either cast a full set of transfers (voting "below the line") or to case an "above the line" vote by choosing a political party and casting a single vote for them. The vote is then redistributed according to the list already nominated by the party. This can lead to horse-trading between parties - again is this really such a good thing?

A lot of people argue that the recent electoral successes by the BNP are because of low turnout and that getting more people to the polls will negate their chances. Now whilst an increased turnout amongst the middle classes may boost the anti-BNP vote (although anyone who thinks the BNP's appeal is exclusively working class need only to look at a map of all their victories to see how this is an illusion) but dragging people to the polling booths who are anti-politics can only boost the vote for a party that is "anti-politics". Extreme parties thrive on despair and disillusionment amongst voters. Forcing them to the polls would only be doing part of the BNP's work for them.

Let's not make hasty changes to the voting system to provide a quick fix to problems of political engagement. It will do nothing to enhance voter engagement and the quality of political discourse, nor will it marginalise extremes. These are problems that need to be cured, not shored up.


Sir-C4' said...

While I believe that everyone who can vote should vote, it is contary to the princples of a free liberal-democracy to force people to vote.

Anonymous said...

Which bit - that the Australians elected their Howard or that the British didn't elect ours?


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