Australia is one of 30 countries where voting is compulsory, one of 10 countries where this is enforced through the government, and the only country where English is spoken as the primary language that has compulsory voting. Though these are interesting facts, the widespread use of optional voting is not a valid argument against compulsory voting. I will outline why compelling an individual to perform an action or exercise their rights stands in direct contradiction with core democratic principles. Then the problems that compulsory voting created for any political system will be outlined as further proof that it is an anti-democratic measure.
The crux of my first point against compulsory voting hinges upon the premise that when an individual is compelled to exercise any of their rights on threat of punishment, the individual is not actually in possession of those rights. An example of this point is best illustrated if we substitute the right to vote with another right, such as the right to freely exercise one’s religious beliefs. We would find it deeply unpalatable if the government fined people who did not exercise their religious beliefs or fined atheists for not exercising any religious belief. If we take the rights of American citizens to bear arms as another example, it would simply beg belief if the United States government began fining those who did not carry or own a firearm. The right to vote in elections is an act of expression by an individual, which can be classified as a sub-branch of the broader right of an individual to freedom of speech. Compelling someone to speak or perform of act of expression against their will, would normally constitute a breach of their right to freedom of speech as this also includes the freedom not to speak. A government cannot protect the rights of its citizens, if it enforces legislation that coerces an individual through threat of a monetary punishment to forcibly exercise one of their rights.
This argument can also be tackled from a pragmatic perspective, as many undesirable outcomes can and have emerge in political systems with compulsory voting. In regards to Australia, the government fines individuals who do not turn up and have their name ticked off $20 the first time and $50 each time after. Enforcing this rule involves a considerable investment of time by AEC staff, who are paid handsome wages which therefore adds a small financial saving if the system was abolished. Most of the time this fine is not paid and simply ignored by the non-voter without consequence or further correspondence from the AEC. Some argue that those who do not wish to vote can still queue at a polling station, have their name ticked off, and lodge an invalid vote. This is factually correct but a poor argument for compulsory voting, as someone who does not wish to vote would waste a considerable amount of: their own time, the time of electoral staff, and the time of other citizens who are waiting in line during this process.
There is a noticeable impact that forcing citizens to vote has had upon the Australian political system, as minor parties through complex preference deals have managed to capitalise on the apathetic vote. Those disenfranchised with the political system and who would rather not vote, are not only forced against their wishes to do may cast a protest vote for a minor party. Due to the Australian preference system this normally results in a long winded vote for one of the major parties in the Lower House, and has increasingly resulted in the election of minor party candidates to the Upper House since the 2013 federal election. This then entrenches the two-party system in the Lower House but makes it harder to govern due to a obfuscated and unwieldy Upper House. A far more democratic situation would be introducing optional voting, allowing those who do not wish to participate to do so without consequence and in turn would produce a more accurate reflection of the will of those engaged with the political system.
Optional voting in Australia should be introduced in order to ensure that elected representatives accurately reflect the will of the Australian people. The government must safeguard the rights of the individual which includes both the freedom of speech and the freedom to not. Compulsory voting violates the right of an individual to freedom of expression, and produces highly undesirable anti-democratic outcomes.