The voting reform we need: make it voluntary

009133.an.image.ballot.boxAustralia’s voting system needs a shake-up. That’s the message that has been emanating from the political class, since a disparate group of micro-parties were elected in 2013.

Such calls have now spread to the state level, with The Age reporting on the pressure for reform within both of Victoria’s major parties.

The major parties are concerned by the election of minor and micro-party MPs, whose presence makes it harder for them to govern. This has led to a range of proposed reforms designed to reduce the presence of minor parties.

But there is one reform that’s not being discussed, the re-introduction of voluntary voting.

Voluntary voting existed in Australian until 1924 (on the federal level). Since then, voting in Australia has been compulsory, with non-compliance leading to a $20 fine (and ultimately much tougher court imposed sanctions).

Unlike proposals to toughen registration requirements, impose thresholds, or move to optional preferential voting (which does have its merits), voluntary voting would solve the problem at the heart of Australian politics: that major parties are failing to represent their constituents.

Forcing people to vote means that major parties are able to ignore their political base—who can be relied on to preference them above major competitors. As a result, elections are decided by an increasingly small number of swing voters in marginal seats.

Ideological differences disappear as parties run to the centre; choosing policies based on polling results from outer-suburb electorates in western Sydney and Queensland.

The interests of the rest of the country are largely ignored.

If voting was voluntary, parties would have to balance appealing to swing voters in the centre and appealing to their own political base. Campaigns that neglect either would be unlikely to succeed, and more electorates would be in play.

This would make Australian politicians far more representative of the voters who elect them.

Those opposed to compulsory voting frequently warn of the dangers of U.S. style hyper-polarization. But this is a misleading argument that ignores the fact that voluntary voting exists in the vast majority of western democracies, few of which have the level of polarization that exists in America.

This includes the U.K., Canada, and New Zealand—the most culturally and political similar countries to Australia. If these countries can gain the benefits of voluntary voting without hyper-polarization, then surely Australia can too.

If people are responsible enough to elect our politicians, then surely they should be given the choice of whether to vote. It would only be a good thing for Australia.

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