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Why Vote?

As an Australian citizen, I voted in the recent federal election there. So did about 95% of registered Australian voters. That figure contrasts markedly with elections in the United States, where the turnout in the 2004 presidential election barely exceeded 60%. In Congressional elections that fall in the middle of a president’s term, usually fewer than 40% of eligible Americans bother to vote.

There is a reason why so many Australians vote. In the 1920’s, when voter turnout fell below 60%, parliament made voting compulsory. Since then, despite governments of varying political complexions, there has been no serious attempt to repeal the law, which polls show is supported by about 70% of the population.

Australians who don’t vote receive a letter asking why. Those without an acceptable excuse, like illness or travel abroad, must pay a small fine, but the number fined is less than 1% of eligible voters.

In practice, what is compulsory is not casting a valid vote, but going to the polling place, having one’s name checked off, and putting a ballot paper in the box. The secrecy of the ballot makes it impossible to prevent people writing nonsense on their ballot papers or leaving them blank. While the percentage of invalid votes is a little higher where voting is compulsory, it comes nowhere near offsetting the difference in voter turnout.