Explained: Why voting is mandatory in Australia

It is the legal duty of an Australian citizen aged 18 and over to register to vote and go to the polls. If a person fails to vote it can result in a fine and potentially a day in court

FP Explainers April 26, 2022 21:15:52 IST
Explained: Why voting is mandatory in Australia

File photo of a voter dropping a ballot paper into the ballot box in Australia. AFP

Australia is heading to the polls on 21 May to decide which party will run the government in the country for the next three years.

Even though the right to vote is freedom sought by people all over the world, Australians do not have a choice in the matter as the country makes voting mandatory.

According to the BBC, Australia is part of a small minority of just 23 countries with mandatory voting laws. Only 10 of those enforce them.

It is the legal duty of an Australian citizen aged 18 and over to register to vote and go to the polls. If a person fails to vote it can result in a fine and potentially a day in court.

What is mandatory voting and its history?

According to the Australian Electoral Commission, the decline in voter turnout was the driving force behind the introduction of mandatory voting. It said that voter turnout dropped from 71 per cent in the 1919 election to less than 60 per cent in the 1922 elections.

In order to address the problem, a private member’s bill to amend the Electoral Act was introduced in the Senate in 1924. At the time, it was only the third private member’s bill to be passed into law since 1901.

As a result of the law, the voter turnout at the 1925 election rose to over 91 per cent.

Gradually, states across the country introduced compulsory voting starting from Victoria in 1926, New South Wales and Tasmania in 1928, Western Australia in 1936 and South Australia in 1942.

When enrolment and voting at federal elections was introduced for Australian Aborigines in 1949 it was voluntary, and continued to be so until 1984 when enrolment and voting became compulsory for all eligible electors.

The turnout at Australian elections has never fallen below 90 per cent since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924.

What if you don’t vote?

According to the Australian Electoral Commission, people who fail to vote will be sent a letter asking to provide a legitimate reason or pay a $20 fine.

If they fail to pay the fine or provide a valid reason for not voting, the matter will be sent to court.

"If the matter is dealt with in court and you are found guilty, you may be fined up to $180 plus court costs and a criminal conviction may be recorded against you,” it says.

Arguments for and against compulsory voting

It has been argued that making voting mandatory takes away the very essence of democracy, while its supporters say that the system teaches the benefits of political participation.

According to a BBC report, Libertarian columnist Jason Kent says this stifles political freedom and threatens the basic principles of democracy.

"People have been sentenced to jail terms for not voting. It's disgusting. It's far from being democratic. We are not a democracy if we can't vote democratically,” he said.

On the other hand, Dr Peter Chen, who teaches at the University of Sydney, says that showing up to the polls every so often is not a huge burden.

"The system demonstrates a social expectation that at a minimum everyone needs to participate every few years and that's a good thing."

Long-time political insider and commentator Paula Matthewson, who makes a conscious decision not to vote and pays the fine instead, says the problem goes beyond young voters.

"The idea that high voter turnout based on compulsory voting translates into a politically engaged electorate is nonsensical. If we moved to a voluntary system, with the level of disenchantment and disengaged voters we have now, no one would vote,” she said.

With inputs from agencies

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