In praise of: compulsory voting
While over in Australia (see June 2016 Legal Action 14), I had a meeting in Melbourne to discuss the legal aid campaign with Mark Dreyfus QC MP, the shadow Attorney-General. Dreyfus, who represents a parliamentary seat in Melbourne for the Australian Labor Party, offered support to the campaign but, rather like his British equivalents, would not be drawn on any spending commitment. His views on Australia’s compulsory voting system, though, were forthright: it’s every Australian citizen’s duty to turn up and vote, he believes, even if they spoil their ballot paper.
According to the Australian Electoral Commission, voting is a civic duty comparable to taxation, compulsory education and jury service. Australians who do not provide a valid reason for not voting are fined $20. If they don’t pay and the matter goes to court, the result can be a fine of up to $180 and a criminal conviction.
In the UK’s last three general elections, around a third of the electorate have not bothered to vote. At the last general election, 66.1 per cent of the electorate voted. Not great, but at least better than that of 2001, when just over 40 per cent of voters stayed at home. Compared to recent general elections, the turnout in the EU membership referendum was high, at 72.2 per cent, but it still meant over a quarter of voters did not express an opinion either way on a matter that will have far-reaching consequences for everyone. Maybe we should be following the Australians’ example? It might not change anything, but at least it will no longer risk elections being decided by apathy.