Elections and voting

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.

Banning how-to-vote cards weakens democracy

The Queensland government is considering a ban on how to vote cards outside polling booths. This is madness – a clear and obvious threat to free expression in an electoral democracy. Australian elections are already incredibly highly regulated.

There are rules governing the timing of election advertisements and their format, rules governing spending, rules governing donations, and rules governing electoral material.

In my book I outlined the tenuous arguments made by electoral authorities in favour of these constraints. The Queensland government’s proposals are even less compelling. Democracy ought to be rowdy and enthusiastic. This is a sign of vibrancy not bad behaviour. Of course if it is demonstrated that some campaigners have been obstructing voters on their way to polling booths this is a matter for police rather than electoral control.

Still, this is at least practical compared to the Victorian Parliament’s investigation into whether it can regulate comment on elections on social media. As the Liberal MP Bernie Finn said “On social media it’s the wild, wild west. It’s anything goes.” Even if regulating free democratic speech online was desirable – and why would it be? – it would be utterly, utterly futile to try.

It is hard not to see the proposed changes in Queensland and Victoria as an undue threat to free expression in a healthy democracy. And not trivial ones either. Constraints on advertising and constraints on campaigning inevitably favour the incumbents.

South Australian politicians change the electoral rules in their favour

adelaideparliamentSometime later this week the South Australian parliament will rig its electoral system in favour of established parties.

The idea is to “prevent virtual unknown” candidates from taking a seat by stopping candidates from benefiting from preference distribution unless they have 2.5 per cent of the primary vote. InDaily has the details here. Of course the changes are being Continue Reading →

Leyonhjelm: end public funding of electoral campaigns

LDP Senator-elect David Leyonhjelm has a great piece in today’s Australian Financial Review, where he identifies the heart of the public funding problem:

The underlying problem is that governments intrude too much into our lives. There would be less need to lobby a government that did less. As it stands, business success can often depend on favourable ministerial decisions, and there is no shortage of people keen to enlist the government’s support to impose their views on the rest of us.

A better option would be to Continue Reading →

Here’s where the Left goes wrong on public funding for political parties


The Left gets political party public funding all wrong. Dishing out millions in taxpayer money to candidates is based on the idea that parties shouldn’t be seeking private donations. The Australian‘s resident psephologist Peter Brent explains:

This system has been in place since 1984 and was supposed to lessen parties’ reliance on business and union donations. It hasn’t turned out that way because Continue Reading →