For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you will know outside of Irish politics, my other main interest is Australia. Like us, the Australians held an election last Saturday to decide who would govern over the next three years.
Unlike us, however, Australia has a system of compulsory voting. No, you’re not put in prison if you don’t vote, rather you have turn up at the polling station (you can also postal vote or pre-poll)
Here is the guidance from the Australian Electoral Commission
Voting is compulsory in Australia. Failure to vote at a federal election without a valid and sufficient reason is an offence under section 245 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. You are required to pay the $20 penalty.
In the most recent federal election, turnout was around 83%, which is low by Australian standards as turnout typically gets above 90% for these type of elections.
Australians have to go through a number of elections, they have their Federal Parliament (with votes for the House of Reps and the Senate), then they have their state elections, then they have their local government. Also remember that their parliaments typically run for three years, in some states they have four year terms but in others they stick with the normal three year cycle.
In our context, the recent assembly election of 65% is usually as good as it gets in Northern Ireland. At the last local government election just over half of the electorate came out and if the current projections are to be believed turnout in this recent European Election could be under 50%.
We need to consider the introduction of compulsory voting in Northern Ireland. Here’s why;
- Many of the arguments against its introduction are actually based on myths, so for example the statement “you cannot force people to vote for someone they don’t like” doesn’t actually hold any water in this system. All you are required to do in the compulsory voting arrangement is turn up, cast a ballot, you have the option of either spoiling your vote or in cases there can be a “non of the above” option which would force a re-run of the election if that option won. You are not required to vote for any candidate you don’t want to.
- “It’s my right to stay at home” Sure it is, but in a society you are compelled to do many things that you might not otherwise want to do, such as Jury Duty, it’s your right not to use a bin, but we still fine you for littering. We use levy’s and charges to influence behaviours of people all the time, look at the Plastic Bag Levy or the Sugar tax.
- Decisions are made by those who show up- You might not want to vote, but in a democratic society, we need to hammer home that this is an important part of living in a liberal democracy. We want you to turn up because your opinion is important. In a society it is not too much to ask that every few years, we want you to take 10 minutes out of your day to register your opinion.
- Positive impact on political debate- In a lower turnout society, it is all too tempting for parties to engage in campaigns that simply seek to “get out the base” or governments that pander to the base. If politicians have to engage with a broader electorate, they have to moderate and ensure that they are engaging with the mainstream of opinion in the wider community. Particularly for Northern Ireland, this can be a useful change.
- Governments are compelled therefore to actually consider the entire electorate when making decisions. The urge to target/salami slice the electorate will be diminished if they know that broadly speaking around 90% plus of the voters will turnout at the next election.
- Representation-Imagine your council, assembly and parliaments being able to claim a mandate from more than 9/10 voters. There would be no question of “they don’t speak for me,” because they would put there by the vast majority of registered voters.
- Fines- the fines would be small as they are in Australia, for those who have a genuine reason for not voting they get an exemption, but we can use some of the revenue towards improving the number of polling stations, supporting other avenues for people to vote and become really creative about civic participation in our society.
These are just some of the many reasons for this change. In Australia, polling day is characterized by queues of people lining up to vote, with party workers cooking sausage sandwiches for hungry electors and lots of engagement going on. It says so much about who they are as a society. It could say a lot about us too and how we get people to engage. If we keep expecting less from each other, then we will always get less. Northern Ireland already has enough problems with our culture of low expectations, but this change could be a step in the right direction. It is not too much to ask somebody to take those few minutes and come out to tell our leaders what they think and what direction they want our community to go in.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs