Higher than usual turnout is expected for the 2018 midterm elections, and one indication is a surge in early voting in Texas primaries, with Democratic turnout up 69 percent and Republican votes up 20 percent from the early count for the 2014 primaries. And, unlike in Australia, no one dares tell Texans they have to vote.
High election turnouts throughout this past year follow the divisive and hotly contested 2016 general election, in which 55.7 percent of voting-age Americans cast a ballot, about 86 percent of registered voters, a healthy number for the U.S.
But in Australia in 2016, about 87 percent of voting-age people participated in the nation’s federal election, or 91 percent of enrolled voters. And that was the lowest turnout since the country introduced compulsory voting in 1924.
If the U.S. had compulsory voting, how would it change American democracy? One thing the Aussies figured for their own country was that near-universal engagement would have a moderating effect on politics.
Compulsory voting and enrollment have been credited with giving Australia relatively stable, moderate leaders for most of its history, according to Stewart Jackson, a lecturer in the department of government and international relations at the University of Sydney. He said that aspiring Australian politicians have to appeal to a majority of the entire population, rather than working to activate and energize certain segments of voters, an ideological “base.”
“The original intent, or one of the arguments, for compulsory voting was that it would make elections about policy. We’d stop pleading for people to vote and just talk about policy. You wouldn’t have to spend all your time with a get-out-the-vote effort,” Jackson told HuffPost. “Now we do have campaigns about policy. It’s not just trying to appeal to a particular sector to vote. You appeal to everybody. The parties have gotten good at appealing to the middle voter.”
Jenny Tilby Stock, a visiting research fellow at the University of Adelaide, said compulsory voting also encouraged voters to pay attention to politics and policy, to ensure that their vote went to the right party. “It encourages people to think about who they want to run the country. It definitely leads to a higher interest in politics. Some people complain about having to go vote, but then you think about other countries where blood has been shed and they’re not allowed to vote,” she told HuffPost.
Stock also said that higher turnout means the winning party can claim a greater mandate for their policies.
“It adds legitimacy to the government that is elected when so many people participate. In America, only a small number of the total population end up voting for the winning party. In Australia, just over half of the 95 percent of the country who is enrolled end up voting for the winner,” she said.
Despite occasional minor arguments that compulsory voting should be abolished in Australia, Stock said the system appears to be solid.
“The conservative side of politics brings up periodically that we do away with it, but it’s supported by the center and left. The argument is ‘Why should people who don’t care influence the vote?’ But the people who already don’t vote are young, marginal groups or ethnic groups, which is particularly important in America,” she said. “It’s a very good system. It’s been in for so long, the chances of changing it are minimal. It’s very effective.”
“We’re a very compliant country,” Jackson said. “We want to vote. Compulsory voting, in some respects, does force people to be engaged in politics. If you’re going to vote, you have to make a decision. Having to be engaged means you at least pay some attention to the world.”
In Australia, both enrolling to vote and actually casting a ballot are compulsory for local, state and federal elections. In reality, punishments for not doing so are low ― a fine of just $20 ($15 in U.S. dollars) for not voting, and zero punishment for not enrolling ― but it has a strong encouraging effect. Since compulsory voting was introduced in 1924, turnout has been as high as 96 percent in some elections. It has never dropped below 91 percent.
As of December, 96.3 percent of eligible Australians were on the electoral roll, or slightly more than 16 million people. The government estimates only 611,000 eligible people are not enrolled.
There is a uniform roll for state and federal elections, managed by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). The voting age in Australia is 18, but 16- and 17-year-olds can enroll, so the AEC routinely visits high schools to sign young people up. Anyone can enroll or update information online, too.
“Compulsory enrollment helps create an up-to-date and accurate electoral roll. This is important because the electoral roll is a tool for delivering the franchise in an equal and non-discriminatory way. It is the foundation of a fair election,” said former AEC commissioner Ed Killesteyn.
To make sure voters get their say, the AEC sends out mobile polling teams that cover millions of square miles by road, air and sea. In 2016, those teams made it to the 23 voters in Camel Camp and the 39 in Koongie Park, the AEC spokesman told HuffPost, and it gathered votes in Antarctica, where Australia has several permanent research bases.
The AEC also offers postal voting, several weeks of early voting and election days that are nearly always on weekends.
And because those weekend election days are at polling places that are often schools and public buildings, local education and community groups use the opportunity to raise funds, often hosting family days at the polling places with barbecues, children’s games and market stalls.
The barbecues are so popular, there’s now the tradition of the “democracy sausage,” a sausage sandwich sold on election days. Entire websites (such as democracysausage.org) have been created to show the wares at each polling station so voters, who are not tied to one precinct, can plan ahead and cast their votes at the place with the best food.
It is a tradition one Australian journalist tried to bring to America on Election Day in 2016.
“If young people are interested enough at 16, doing legal studies and politics at school, then yes. But it shouldn’t be compulsory, because the average 16-year-old probably won’t vote. They should be able to, but it shouldn’t be compulsory until 18,” Stock said.
Jackson said he doubted such a reform would pass in Australia but thinks high school students are often politically engaged enough to cast a reasoned vote.
“There is this idea of of no taxation without representation,” he said, noting that 16-year-olds can drive, work and pay taxes.
“Look at the young people marching about guns in the U.S. They are very politically engaged.”