To vote or not to vote

Having just had a national election in Australia and with the US primaries in full swing, it’s an appropriate time to discuss what the best way to implement democracy is. In particular I’d like to discuss the issue as to whether voting ought to be mandatory or not. This is one of the key differences between Australia, where voting is mandatory, and most other countries, like the US. While this may appear to be a moot point, it actually has very significant effects on voting dynamics in a country. The most outright argument against mandatory voting is the whole issue of personal freedom, which is a more than reasonable argument. However, emotive arguments aside, whether voting is mandatory or not has a big impact on how people vote and how candidates play their cards in the lead up to an election.

In Australia the lead up to an election generally consists of character bashing and debating a small number of highly significant issues. For example, in the recent Australian election there was an large amount of attacking candidate’s characters, plus an enormous amount of argument on the issue of ‘WorkChoices’, a set of largely unpopular labour market reforms implemented by the previous Liberal government. In the US the dynamics are quite different. Candidates know that only about 30% of the eligible population actually bother to vote, so election campaigning largely revolves around how to mobilize voters since this represents the biggest untapped pool of potential supporters. This has opened the door to enormous influence by special interest and lobby groups. Most notable is the influence of right wing Christian groups in the US, whose primary aim is to mobilize Christian voters to turn up to vote. The same applies to many other special interest and lobby groups. Other notable examples are the National Rifle Association, pro-Israel groups and women’s rights group. In Australia we generally don’t see such influence by special interest groups. Most notably, although Australia has a strong Christian base, they haven’t been mobilized into a coherent political force the way they have in the United States. Australia’s primary Christian lobby group, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), doesn’t achieve much more than sending out monthly newsletters to promote Christian views in Australian politics. Mobilizing voters as such isn’t possible since everyone already votes. Instead the ACL has the more difficult task of taking people who already vote and trying to convert them to vote as the ACL suggests. This is a much more difficult task, and even if they succeed in winning over a large number of voters, this has comparatively less effect since 100% of the people are voting.

In my mind the non-mandatory voting system can completely skew political power in a country. The power of pro-gun, pro-Israel and Christian groups does not reflect the demographics of the US. Effectively, by exploiting the fact that most Americans don’t bother to vote, special interest groups can seize political control of the country.

The question is, what is more important, the freedom to choose whether to vote or the absence of industrial scale influence from special interest groups. On one hand I would cherish my right not to vote, although having a democracy perverted by Christian fundamentalists, gun-toting nuts, fanatical pro-Israel groups, or anti or pro-abortion extremists is quite unsavory indeed. All up I think the later is a bigger perversion of democratic ideals than having the right to not vote.

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