This year’s election had the lowest turnout for a century. For the first time since compulsory voting was introduced for the 1925 federal election, turnout fell below 90%.
For most of the last 100 years, voter turnout, which measures the number of people who lodge a vote as a percentage of all enrolled to vote, was around 95%. Since the 2007 federal election, however, it has declined steeply.
Australia is rare in requiring citizens to enrol and vote. Without compulsory voting, voter turnout in most nations is low – averaging just 69% across OECD countries. When voting is optional, those with lower education and lower income are less likely to vote – making government less representative of and attentive to those groups, and more influenced by elite power.
Examples that illustrate that ‘if you don’t vote, you don’t count’ are:
- When compulsory voting was introduced in the 1925 federal election, the conservative Nationalist Party changed from opposing the old age pension to supporting it.
- After US women got the vote, there were large, sudden increases in public health spending to reduce child mortality.
- After the US Voting Rights Act (1965) fully extended the right to vote to African Americans, their communities got better public services, such as fire stations, recreational facilities, paved streets, and garbage collection.
While other policies such as improving education could increase voter turnout by a few per cent, nothing works as well as a well-enforced compulsory voting regime. Compulsory voting brings us closer to the ideal of ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’.
The $20 penalty for not voting has not changed since 1984. As wages rise, its deterrent value falls – it would be $78 today if it had risen in line with wages.
Australians should be grateful for our compulsory voting system and the genuinely mass turnout that it encourages – but the recent fall in voter turnout shows it has been taken for granted and needs to be made a priority before the next federal election.