Emily Beausoleil and Max Rashbrooke: More direct democracy better than compulsory voting

A woman casts her vote at Christchurch East School during the 2014 election. A vote once every three years is an ...
IAIN MCGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

A woman casts her vote at Christchurch East School during the 2014 election. A vote once every three years is an ineffective way to express political views, Max Rashbrooke and Emily Beausoleil agree.

OPINION: Fears about falling voter turnout have recently sparked heated arguments on whether we should, like our Australian neighbours, have compulsory voting. But both its proponents and opponents forget that the vote is only one aspect of a healthy democracy. Low voter turnout is a sign of a much bigger problem, one we can address only by handing power back to citizens and building a different kind of democracy. 

It is true, as AUT's Leonid Sirota wrote recently in these pages (Case to make voting compulsory is thin, April 21) that voting is a "remarkably ineffective" way to express one's views about public affairs. It happens infrequently, and says little about what a voter actually thinks. And he's right that compulsory voting doesn't work – not if your aim is a more informed decision, or more involved and committed citizens, or greater legitimacy for those chosen to lead. 

But that does not mean that politics should be rejected wholesale, or treated like just another hobby, "similar to an interest one might have in sport or music", as Sirota argues. It's still the place where big, world-shaping decisions get made. Some of the most important matters that affect our fates – the kind of education we get, the way we protect or degrade our environment, the rates at which people pay taxes and support others through social security – are determined in the political system. Both the impact those decisions have on our lives, and the democratic imperative that we should have a say in them, implies that rather than retreat, we need to fix what's broken. 

Perfecting our democracy is therefore one of the most essential tasks we face. That doesn't mean compulsory voting, a cosmetic solution to a systemic problem. Rather than pushing people to the ballot box, we need to address the reasons they are failing to turn up under their own steam. People are turned off by an increasing distrust in MPs, a widening gap between political elites and everyday citizens, and politicians' growing failure to represent 'the people' as the tentacles of money reach ever deeper into political campaigning. If we want people to turn out to vote, we need better parliamentary politics.

But, just as importantly, ordinary people need experiences of meaningful citizenship beyond Election Day, as Sirota himself hints when he says he wants "a more deliberative and inclusive political climate". A healthy democracy and high voter turnout depend on the political culture that surrounds, informs, and supports what we do on that rare day we're asked to cast our vote. We need ways for citizens to play a more active role in shaping the laws and policies they are subject to. We need to refine, enhance and extend channels of contact and responsiveness between citizens and their representatives. And we need to create opportunities for engagement that presume citizens are capable of learning and deliberating about issues that affect them. 

Sirota seems to think the only two options for democracies are an apolitical retreat or a surge of the populist masses. What we're proposing is distinct from both: an "everyday" democracy that takes the popular will and channels it into constructive decision-making. This isn't about romanticising democracy – it's about making it work better.

This might sound daunting, especially in New Zealand where weren't not used to being involved in big decisions very often. But there are hundreds of global examples of this everyday democracy working in practice. In Brazilian cities, tens of thousands of citizens vote to directly allocate 10 per cent or more of their local council budgets, weighing up more spending on roads, say, against less on parks. 

In British Columbia, new forms of collaborative governance are being used to improve stewardship and protection of rivers and lakes. In Iceland, thousands of citizens helped to rewrite the country's constitution through social media and deliberative forums. In Victoria, a representative group of 100 ordinary Australians recently delivered a radical but feasible set of recommendations on tackling obesity, after six weeks of reading and a weekend of discussion, in what one observer called "a very powerful, and moving, process". 

These forms of everyday democracy are not just ideals: they actually work. Time and again, ordinary people show that, contrary to stereotypes, they are more than capable of weighing the facts, listening to others, and changing their minds when the evidence is compelling. Supported, but not ruled, by experts, they can make good policy on some of the biggest issues we face. And they're more likely to accept decisions they may not personally agree with, because they know their views have be considered and they've had a chance to hear all sides. 

Sirota refers to non-voters as "a large number of especially ignorant individuals". But this condescension is unwarranted. Ordinary people may struggle to grasp the nuances of complex political issues, but their basic intuitions are often subtle and founded on deep principles. And given the time and resources, they come up with remarkable innovations and effective solutions. 

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We don't expect, say, doctors to be brilliant at their work without training, so why should we expect people to be superb democrats without support?  Let's create the forums that will help people to be everyday democrats. This will make our politics more informed and responsive, and will give ordinary people greater confidence in themselves as citizens. In our fractured age, these forums also hold out the hope of constructive engagement and the diminishing of partisan anger.

Not all democracy can be direct or everyday, of course: it would simply take up too much of our time. But we can still put many more decisions into the hands of citizens without straining their enthusiasm for politics. 

In the end, relying so much on one vote every three years is a failure of imagination. It is also a self-fulfilling prophecy that encourages a "stay at home" relationship to political life and, ultimately, elections themselves. Politicians should ask more, not less, of us as citizens; should expect more, not less, of us when we are given the opportunity to make informed decisions. The answer is not a forced turnout on Election Day, but a concerted effort to develop a meaningful participatory culture on every other day in political life.

Emily Beausoleil is a lecturer in political theory at Massey University. Max Rashbrooke is a research associate at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University.

 - The Dominion Post

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