Informal ballots: blame compulsory voting

Don’t blame Mark Latham’s 60 Minutes spot for the increase in informal ballots last Saturday.

Blame compulsory voting.

The 2010 election saw the highest number of informal votes cast in more than 25 years. In seven separate seats the informal votes were higher than 10 per cent of the total – all in New South Wales.

Latham’s muckraking reflected the general sense of disillusionment with the political choice in 2010. He was not the cause of it. If his spot was broadcast during, say, the 2007 election, Latham would have simply been dismissed as a posturing clown.

Well, more of a posturing clown.

Those who deliberately spoil their ballot are indicating they are not simply frustrated with the choices, but are frustrated they are compelled to choose. The informal vote is as much an indictment of the system as a protest against this campaign.

Sure, many informal votes are only accidentally informal. Most people want to place a valid vote, even if they don’t have enough interest to figure out how to do so.

Yet that should be damning enough.

In 1924, a Labor Senator said that the “the opinions of the negligent and apathetic section of the electors are not worth obtaining”. A bit harsh. But certainly it seems counterproductive to force the negligent and apathetic to give an opinion on something they are not interested in.

Many voters themselves feel they are not well-informed enough to make a choice. The extremely high number of undecided voters up to polling day is a clear sign the parties completely failed to engage many voters.

Indeed, much dissatisfaction with Election 2010 can be traced back to our compulsory voting system.

In 2005, RMIT Professor Sinclair Davidson and two other RMIT academics, Derek Chong and Tim Fry, examined the political consequences of voluntary voting. (They may have telegraphed their punch in the title: “It’s an evil thing to oblige people to vote”. And Davidson is an Institute of Public Affairs colleague of mine. Take that as you will.)

Davidson and Co. found the biggest losers from compulsory voting are the minor parties.

In the four federal elections the authors looked at (2004, 2001, 1998 and 1996), the Democrats and the Greens could have had a substantially higher vote share, if voting wasn’t compulsory. Certainly in the Senate, but often in the House of Representatives as well.

In 1998 the Democrats could have received more than 15 per cent of the Senate vote share, compared to the 8 per cent they actually did get. In the 2004 election, the House Greens vote could have jumped from 6.8 per cent to 9 per cent, and in the Senate from 7.4 per cent to 10 or even 14 per cent.

The academics also argued a voluntary voting system might slightly favour the Coalition.

Nevertheless, we should take their conclusions with a grain of salt. The parties prepare their election strategies with the quirks and consequences of compulsory voting firmly in mind. You go to election with the system you have.

The obsessive focus on marginal electorates is arguably a consequence of our ballot system.

The major parties by and large favour compulsory voting because it is more efficient for them. Marginal electorate campaigns are the electoral equivalent of Roman divide-and-rule.

In a voluntary voting system, they’d have to work to energise not just marginal voters, but their base as well. You cannot expect unthinking loyalty from your supporters to get you into government. Your supporters might stay at home.

At the very least, all parties would be forced to rethink their strategies – and policies – to suit.

There’s another important argument against compulsory voting – we ought to have the freedom not to vote. In one of this country’s few libertarian classics, Rip van Australia, John Singleton claimed it is the “ultimate contradiction for a supposedly free and democratic society to be founding on a system of compulsory voting.” But Australia is a very utilitarian country. Arguments about rights and liberties don’t get very far here.

Many people claim that compulsory voting gives elected governments legitimacy.

Put aside for a moment the implicit belief that the majority of democratic governments overseas are therefore somewhat illegitimate. If legitimacy is what we’re seeking, then why not compel citizens to take turns running for parliament (like jury duty for Canberra) or insist they join a political party?

Absurd, of course, but the legitimacy argument is too vague to be useful.

The independents say the result of this election reflects a desire in the community for parliamentary reform. And the Greens claim the preferential system conceals their party’s electoral support.

They might all want to rethink compulsory voting.

Chris Berg is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review. Follow him at