Australian Election: A Voting Process that Works

Australian Election: A Voting Process that Works. By Claire Lehmann.

Freedom House, which keeps scores on the health of democracies all over the world, gives Australia a score of 39 out of 40 for political rights, acknowledging we have free and fair elections, with realistic opportunities for opposition parties to win, as well as an independent judiciary and media. We remain democratically strong.

Historian Judith Brett has argued in her book From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage that there are particular features of Australia’s democracy that make it unique. …

The first is the secret ballot of 1856, the second compulsory voting in 1924, and the third establishment of the highly trusted Australian Electoral Commission in 1984.

Secret voting on government-supplied ballots:

The innovative “Australian ballot” … [mandated] that the government provide all of the materials to voters at polling stations. Before this, political candidates would hand voting materials to voters, leaving them open to vote-buying, retaliation and blackmail. The Australian ballot was so successful in reducing the external pressures on voters that it was quickly implemented the world over.

Compulsory voting:

Our second innovation has not been copied by other nations, although perhaps it should be. Australia is one of only 21 electoral democracies to have compulsory voting, and one of only nine that enforces the rule.

Whenever I’ve brought up compulsory voting with American friends they unfailingly express horror at the concept, assuming it must lower the quality of electoral outcomes, while also being a violation of “natural rights”. But the truth is it does the opposite.

When the indifferent voter is compelled to vote, the votes of fanatics are diluted. To be elected, politicians must appeal to the swing voter, those who vote according to everyday issues as opposed to their pet ideology.

The ability of compulsory voting to dilute the power of fanatics is by design. …

One look at the state of US democracy today confirms Mackey’s wisdom. According to Gallup polling, fewer than 20 per cent of Americans think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, yet Republicans are forced to pander to this single-issue voting bloc because they are most likely to vote. The Democrats find themselves in a similar situation, having to accommodate extremists in their own ranks who deny the existence of biological sex or who advocate for absurd ideas such as defunding the police.

Compulsory voting reduces the ability of zealots to wield power in our system and reduces the need for politicians to spend huge amounts of money to get people out to vote.

Yet the most important outcome of compulsory voting may be that it bakes in popular policies, precluding the need for populist revolts. No prime minister could be elected in this country if they wished to roll back the minimum wage, Medicare or border control. …

Trusted body to run elections:

To top it off, election results in Australia are rarely distrusted or disputed. This is in large part due to the AEC, which makes Australia’s democracy uniquely strong. Established in 1984, the nonpartisan commission takes the logistical details of the election out of the government’s hands, ensuring the process runs smoothly and without political interference, gerrymandering or voter suppression. Trust in the AEC means there is trust in the outcomes of our elections. Whatever the result of the federal election on Saturday, it is highly unlikely the public will not accept the result.

Take note, world — it works. Also, Australian voting is on paper ballots only. They are hand counted by election officials, with representatives from all parties involved scrutinizing the entire counting process. Close results are automatically recounted.

The weakness is a lack of voter ID, but the push for that is building.