And so another US election is behind us. Despite the fact that I no longer live in the United States, the presidential race was still watched with interest by me and many, many others around the world. And like many others in the US and around the world I am very happy with the outcome, and look forward to a better world with a President Obama in the White House.
There have been a number of articles in the media calling out that the voter turnout was the highest in decades. Given how much was at stake, this didn’t surprise me. However I was shocked to discover that the highest turnout in decades has been estimated to be around 62.5%, or less than 2 out of 3 eligible voters.
For Americans (and most likely people from a lot of other countries) this may seem to be an impressive, or at least respectable figure. However having grown up in Australia, I’m used to seeing voter turnouts averaging 95%. While it’s possible that Australians are fundamentally more interested in politics than Americans, the real reason for such a high figure here is because this is one of a handful of countries that has (and enforces) compulsory voting.
Due to my cultural upbringing, I find this policy completely familiar and uncontroversial. However whenever this topic came up in conversation in the US most people were horrified, considering it a major violation of rights. There are a couple of reasons why I disagree with this view.
Quite a long time ago, I participated in a training course to learn how to conduct door-to-door market research (although as it turned out I never actually did the job!). In the training we learned that at any given time that you might knock on doors, some people may not be at home so obviously you can’t ask their opinion about whatever product you are researching. However rather than just discounting that person’s opinion, you had to come back on a different day and try again. The reason for this is that a sample of people that only includes those that are home at a particular time (like Saturday morning) is not considered statistically representative. Maybe the people who aren’t home were busy playing sport, and these lifestyle choices are likely to significantly shift their opinion on the product in question. Such practices are apparently common in the world of market research. So if these practices are important enough to guide research into views on fizzy drinks, shouldn’t they be used to decide who should be in government? There is no reason to believe that the group of people who feel uninterested or disenfranchised enough to not want to vote would vote in precisely the same ratio as those that do turn up. Governments must represent all of their constituents, so any election that only includes a self-selecting subset is inherently flawed.
Just to ram this point home, I’m sure you’ve all seen self-selecting polls on all sorts of topics that are frequently run by websites and TV news shows. Most of them contain a disclaimer something like this:
DISCLAIMER: These polls are not scientific and reflect the opinions of only those Internet users who have chosen to participate. Poll results cannot be assumed to represent the opinions of Internet users in general, nor the public as a whole.
The disclaimer is hard to argue with. So why do people believe that voluntary elections, which run on the same principle, are an accurate reflection of the public as a whole?
One common argument against compulsory voting is that some people genuinely have no opinion or are fundamentally opposed to voting on philosophical or religious grounds. And to go back to my market research example, even if the researcher keeps coming back until somebody is home, there is no way to force them to give an opinion if they don’t want to. While I find it hard to understand how someone can be completely indifferent to something that can have such a big impact on their lives, the Australian system does deal with this well. “Compulsory voting” is not really an accurate description of the system. It’s compulsory to turn up to the polling booth on election day and get your name ticked off. What you do with your ballot paper after that is really up to you. And while there are a percentage of people who will lodge an “informal vote”, the overwhelming majority of people will vote properly – after all, they’re already at the polling place with a ballot paper in hand.
I’m not expecting to convince everyone that this is the better way, nor am I saying that compulsory voting would have changed the result in the latest US presidential election. However I’m sure that there have been many elections over the years in many countries where the result would have been different had voting been compulsory. And I find it hard to see how things wouldn’t be better if the outcomes of elections were based on what the people really want, regardless of their views on the political process.