Arguments For and Against Compulsory Voting

Graham McGuire

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The position adopted in this essay is that voting in elections should not be compulsory. Australia is one of at least twenty countries which compel their citizens to vote in Federal, State and most Local government elections. Australia forced its compulsory voting (CV) laws on its citizens in government elections was quite early in its history. It started with making enrolment for federal elections compulsory this was introduced in 1912. Then Queensland was the first state to force their citizens to vote in state elections compulsory in 1915 with all other states following at a later dates. With the Federal government introducing CV laws for their citizens in 1924 (Australian Electoral Commission 2011). .

Arguments used for or against compulsory voting

Arguments in favour:

It is a civic duty to vote similar to other citizens duties e.g. taxation, jury duty
Demonstrates the values of political participation
Parliament should reflect the entire electorate in policy management and formulation
Political candidates can manage their electioneering resources on other issues rather than having to persuading voters to be present at the poll
The voter is not required to vote for anybody as voting is using secret ballot.

Arguments against:

It is not democratic to compel people to vote it’s an infringement of liberty
The uninformed and individuals with no interest in politics are compelled to vote
It increases the amount of informal votes and “donkey votes”
It increases the amount of safe, single member electorates so as political parties can concentrate on more marginal electorates
Resources have to be allocated to ascertain who failed to vote or who have valid reason not to vote (AEC 2011).

The AEC didn’t include ‘Turn Out’ in its arguments, yet the main reason given on most of the reading on this subject of CV is that Governments are worried about poor turnout of voters. There are other reasons for and against CV but the AEC arguments are a fair representation of the pros and cons.

Turn Out

Supporters of CV say that it improves turnout, so it helps to legitimise governments in Australia. They claim that in countries where voting is voluntary, a lot of political party activity in elections is assigned to getting citizens out to vote (Parliament of Australia 2005, 3). CV can’t be defended by claiming that the government’s legitimacy was formed with a low turn-out is very questionable, for the amount of numbers doesn’t add any credibility in this regard. Making citizens vote doesn’t improve the quality of democracy, it’s the enabling of the citizens in how rules of a community should be determined. The misunderstanding is that democracy doesn’t permit citizens to do everything, along with entitlements also comes responsibilities. Citizens that are not concerned about politics shouldn’t vote (Moraro 2012). Which is preferable: a high turnout, where voters decide on bad or good looks of the leader of the party or flipping a coin, or low turnout where voters decide on issues or performance of the political party? Arguably it’s the latter. Voters who are less interested and less informed are the first to not vote. Consequently, if turnout is low the quantity of political sophistication is high. From the viewpoint of elections as implements of democracy, nonparticipation of these voters would be contemplated as desirable. Therefore low turnout obtains a more informed outcome (Rosema M 2007, 612-622). Low voter turnout suggests we aren’t taking democracy as earnestly as certain people would like to, but this does not require that we must substitute democracy with something else (Brennan J 2009, pp. 535-549).

The candidates no need to encourage voters to vote with CV

Both major political parties have supported CV as it relieves them of the task encouraging their supporters to vote. It is generally accepted that without CV that voters of a lower socioeconomic status would be less likely to vote. This would disadvantage the ALP? This would force the major parties to also pitch their messages to the young and those in the lower socioeconomic strata that there is a definite need to vote (Woodward 2010, 198-199). But would this not be a good thing to force political parties to prepare policies to vie for the votes of the underprivileged, the feeble or the marginalized. A voluntary voting system persuades political parties to focus policies at the underprivileged in order to persuade them to turn out and vote ( 2012).

Compulsory voting worldwide

There are only five democracies which Australia is one of in the world, where voting in elections is compulsory. A Federal backbencher proposed the Bill, there was very little debate before it was passed by both Houses of Parliament (AEC 2010). Australia is now only one of about twenty nations which force their citizens to vote at elections. Five countries are in Europe (they are moderately minor countries of Cyprus, Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece and Liechtenstein), ten in South and Central America, two in Oceania, and one in Africa. Yet, Australia continues to be the only main advanced industrialised democracy that voting is still compulsory. The Netherlands, had CV from 1917 and 1971 and then decided to become voluntary, their average turnout went from 94.6 to 81.5 per cent. If Australia was to change to a voluntary voting system a comparable drop would most likely to occur here (Quadrant Magazine 2013). Our leaders should inspire and motivate citizens to vote with ideas not with threats of fines. Voluntary voting in the long term will improve voter participation. Presently we have 81% voter turnouts but this would be lower if not for the blind guesses and donkey votes (Hirst J 2009). Australia is a liberal democracy that values individual rights, it may have a lower turn out with voluntary voting but it would make it right rather than a duty.

Making Citizens Vote When They Shouldn’t Vote

A western democratic citizen has a political entitlement to vote, which is established on justice and must be legally protected. But the right to vote doesn’t mean they should vote. Under the right of free speech they can advocate slavery, but it would be morally wrong to do so. When CV makes citizens vote there is a moral obligation not to vote shoddily and without any regard to the outcome. Voters shouldn’t be obliged vote but if they do, they owe it to themselves and others to vote rationally, just, unbiased and informed concerning their political beliefs. Correspondingly, we aren’t obligated to be parents, but if we do, we ought to be conscientious, good parents. If we aren’t then we ought not to be parents likewise not vote. A good liberal democracy makes citizens safe in their position as equal and free citizens that they could freely choose to avoid politics. Liberal democracy is a significant public good and everyone should do their part to maintain it. A person can do their part by bowing out. A good vote is cancelled by a bad vote. A good vote is a contribution to society, and then evading a bad vote would also be a contribution to society (Brennan J 2009, pp. 535-549).

Voting not required with CV as voting is using secret ballot

The argument against CV is that casting your vote can be an onerous burden placed on citizens. Against this Mr Christopher Bayliss stated, in a proposal to JSCEM[1], that: “All our voting system requires is for a voter to attend a polling booth and mark some papers as they wish, approximately once every three years. This does not seem to be an insurmountable burden to be part of a democracy”(Australian Electoral Commission 2006). Many other people have said that you don’t have to vote all you have to do is go to a polling booth and have your name crossed of the roll and you don’t have to cast a vote and will not have to pay the fine. If you wish to break the law this most likely would work. It is your duty as a citizen and especially as a professional with professional responsibility not to break the law. The Commonwealth Electoral Act, states “It shall be the duty of every elector to VOTE at each election. The actual duty of the elector is to attend a polling place, have their name marked off the certified list, receive a ballot paper and take it to an individual voting booth, mark it, fold the ballot paper and place it in the ballot box”(Electoral Act 1918 (Cth) s 245(1)). Strict liability applies to this offence (Electoral Act 1918 (Cth) s 245(15) (A)).

Undemocratic to Force Citizens to Vote

The case for democratic freedom would imply that CV is essentially undemocratic as the freedom of choice must certainly incorporate the democratic freedom not to choose as democracy extremely values individual freedom (Lever, A. 2009, 66-67). It is fundamental to liberal-democratic tradition. Ciccone contends that it is a guarantee of a free democratic society that its citizens are unrestricted to formulate their own selections including if to vote or not to vote in any election. Ciccone maintains that the rational inverse of the entitlement to vote, is an entitlement not to vote and because it is just as essential as the entitlement to vote, it should be given the equivalent respect and draw the same aims of strict legal scrutiny when its threatened (Ciccone, 2001-2, pp. 347-8). CV is accused with violating fundamental human rights, namely the freedom of religion, conscience and thought[2]. However, in the case of X v Austria[3] the court found that CV didn’t violate fundamental freedoms, as Austria’s legislation only required attendance at a polling booth and not having to vote was not compulsory (Malkopoulou A 2011 p 247).

In Australia the legislation states it is the duty of each elector to vote not just get your name crossed off[4]. Justice Blackburn stated that casting an invalid vote was a violation of the Act (Australian Electoral Commission 2013). “The claim that compulsion violates the liberal-democratic principles of choice and freedom is without doubt a valid one” (Hill, L. 2007, 5). Kevin Borick QC stated the Australian constitution maintains that all Australians have a right to vote, yet the electoral act maintains that it is a duty. The constitution over rides the electoral act the CV structure is an undemocratic violation of personal freedom and of free will (News. Com. Au. 2011).


There are no issues that the electoral procedure is a very important function of democratic culture. There is also no issue that voting is a moral responsibility of every voter in a democracy. The issue is if a person can be forced to vote in contradiction of their own conviction in the interest of democracy. There is no argument that there are advantages of compulsory voting as experienced in Australia and how this has influenced higher voter turnouts. Yet, the evaluation of democracy mustn’t be diminished to the point of only electoral participation. Voting, regardless of its importance is only one part of democratic participation, as experience has shown, but not an exceptionally convincing one. Governments have been ousted; leaders have been replaced despite claims of legitimacy. Electoral participation is important because it allows citizens to select from amongst candidates that are deemed the finest to lead the country. Democratic societies value individual freedom, including the freedom of not having to vote. Voting is a realistic choice that a voter resolves to exercise when it is in their best interest to do so. Compelling them to do so is undemocratic. The greater turnout rates in countries with CV might not be necessarily good. It has been shown that countries with CV also have high protest or invalid votes. Democracy can’t be enriched when citizens have to vote because they are compelled to in order to avoid penalties. It is only when citizens freely choose to participate in the electoral procedure can their votes be truly and authentic thoughtful of their inclination. Liberal democratic government is a complicated system that respects not only electoral involvement but provides opportunities for citizens to express their equality, freedom, choice and reasoned judgment.


Australian Electoral Commission 2006, Compulsory voting in Australia, prepared by Tim Evans, viewed 18 April 2014, .

Australian Electoral Commission 2011, Compulsory Voting, viewed 8 April 2014, .

Australian Electoral Commission 2013, Understanding Australian electoral legislation, viewed 4 April 2014, .

Australian Electoral Commission 2014, Should voting be voluntary, viewed 4 April 2014, .

Brennan J 2009, Polluting the Polls: When Citizens Should Not Vote, Australasian Journal of Philosophy Volume 87, Issue 4, December 2009, pp. 535-549, viewed 16 April 2014, online at:

Ciccone, A, 2001-2. ‘The Constitutional Right to Vote is Not a Duty’, Hamline Journal of Public Law and Policy, 325, 325-357, viewed 23 April 2014.

Electoral Act 1918 (Cth).

Hill, L. 2007, Compulsory Voting in Australia: History, Public Acceptance and Justifiability, Paper presented to the ECPR Joint Sessions Workshop on “Compulsory Voting: Principles and Practice”, May 7 – 12, Helsinki, Finland.

Hirst J 2009, Why Australia Should Abolish Compulsory Voting, viewed 12 April 2014, . 2012, This house would make voting compulsory, viewed 13 April 2014,<>.

Lever, A. 2009, Is Compulsory Voting Justified? Journal of Political and Moral Philosophy, Public Reason 1 (1): 57-74, viewed 23 April 2014.

Malkopoulou A 2011, The History of Political Debates on Compulsory Voting, viewed 24 April 2014, .

Moraro, P 2012, Why Compulsory Voting Undermines Democracy, Living Ehtics, Issue 88 viewed 9 April 2014, .

News. Com. Au. 2011, Fight for Right to Not Vote, viewed 24 April 2014, .

Parliament of Australia 2005, Compulsory voting in Australian national elections, viewed 8 April 2014, .

Quadrant Magazine 2013, How Compulsory Voting Subverts Democracy, viewed 12 April 2014, .

Rosema, M 2007, Low turnout: Threat to democracy or blessing in disguise, Department of Political Science, University of Twente, viewed 11 April 2014, .

Woodward, D, Parkin, A & Summers, J (eds.) 2010, Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia, 9th edn, Pearson, Frenchs Forest NSW.