Last weekend I exercised my vote in the Australian Federal Election. I did it willingly because I wanted to participate in the choice of a new Government.
I also did it in the knowledge that if I didn’t, I would be breaking the law.
Voting is compulsory in Australian elections and has been for almost 100 years. This attracts little comment or criticism within the country, in fact many citizens here are surprised to learn the practice is not enforced more widely in other jurisdictions (Belgium is one).
Having previously lived in the United Kingdom and New Zealand where, like the vast majority of the democratic world, voting is voluntary, I was surprised and at first a little hostile to this system, but I have grown to understand and appreciate it.
In Australia, the ability to exercise the franchise is not seen just as a right, but a responsibility — a responsibility to help shape the community in which the elector lives, and to participate in democratic freedoms which can never be taken for granted.
Because it’s compulsory, everything is done to ease the task of voting. Those who want to cast their vote early can do so in the weeks before polling day at various pre-poll stations.
There are special arrangements and services for the disabled and the elderly. Australians abroad can vote at their embassies and consulates.
As a result voting turnout is usually well over 90 per cent, with absentees being those who might have died in the weeks before polling day; overseas travellers who could not get to a polling station (voting is not compulsory for citizens based overseas for long periods).
Or those who did not vote without a valid excuse, for which there will be a small fine of $20 (more for persistent offenders).
Excuses such as ‘I forgot” or ‘I was too busy’ are not accepted.
I now agree with the argument put by my Australian friends that not to vote is to spit in the face of those who toiled long and hard for the ability to participate in the government of their communities and their country.
For those who might argue they are so disengaged and disgusted with politics of all persuasions they feel that no one deserves their vote, I say fine. Turn up at the polling station and write ‘none of these’ or ‘Micky Mouse’ or simply just shove the unmarked paper into the ballot box.
Your vote will then be counted as ‘informal’, and you will have avoided any penalty.
The point is you have to turn up, and in doing so you are forced to consider, if only for a few minutes, the duties of being a citizen of a democracy. Not really much to ask.
Compulsory voting in the United Kingdom may well have stopped Brexit, as it could be argued that those who did not vote against European Union membership were happy with the status quo.
It would certainly make a difference in the United States where in some parts it seems there is more effort put into stopping people from voting than assisting them to exercise their franchise.
Above all, it would remove the tag of illegitimacy attached to any Government, or referendum result where there is a substantial proportion of absent voters.
Universal suffrage should mean just that.