Compulsory voting has its champions, including Labour MP Clare Curran. Before the 2010 local body elections, while urging people to vote, she declared her support for laws requiring people to vote. "I believe it's not only the right of every citizen to vote, it's a responsibility," she said.
Calls for compulsory voting were re-ignited by the lowest voter turnout in more than 100 years (74.21 per cent) at the 2011 general election. Some pundits contrasted this apathy with the extraordinary steps people take in authoritarian countries to win the right to vote, then exercise it. At the first presidential election in Egypt after the 2011 revolution, queues were reported to have stretched up to 3 kilometres.
Australia is among the countries with compulsory voting, although the law demands only that voters have their names marked off to show they attended a polling place. It is not compulsory to actually mark the ballot paper.
Polls regularly show 70-80 per cent of Australians support mandatory voting.
But in Queensland, a review of the electoral laws will consider making voting voluntary at state elections.
A discussion paper canvasses views on electoral reforms, ranging from the dumping of compulsory voting to public funding of election campaigns.
Among the arguments for compulsion, mandatory voting ensures the government represents a majority of the population, not just of the numbers who vote. Elected leaders accordingly can claim greater political legitimacy than in countries with non-compulsory systems and lower voter turnouts. Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie colourfully declared: "No-one should whinge about governments they elect because they all had the chance to vote".
As battle lines are drawn, the notion that rights have obligations attached is among the more powerful arguments advanced by supporters of compulsion.
They say Australians take pride that their voting system is more egalitarian than in countries where voting is voluntary, and they maintain that the right to citizenship carries an obligation to vote, just as it carries obligations to pay taxes and serve on juries.
The counter-argument is the freedom to vote is meaningless unless there is also the freedom not to vote, or the freedom to be indifferent to governance and not have to report to polling officials.
- © Fairfax NZ News