What Australia is doing right with voting

Ysabela Golden

There’s been a lot of celebration recently over the result of a national vote in Australia confirming that the majority of its population—61.6 percent of participating voters—supports the possibility of marriage-equality legislation, a prospect that seems very likely to become reality after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s pledge to “get on with the job the Australian people asked us to do, and get this done, this year, before Christmas.” 

For the vote, 79.5 percent of eligible voters participated, a percentage that by U.S. standards is overwhelmingly high—only 55 percent of the U.S. voting population, for example, bothered to cast their ballots in our last presidential election, compared to almost 80 percent of eligible Australians participating in what is ultimately a hyped-up state-funded political poll. What’s more shocking from a U.S. perspective is that the only reason participation was as low as 79.5 percent was because the Australian senate voted down (twice) the proposal to make the survey a compulsory national vote. 

Mandatory voting isn’t unusual for the country—enrollment and voting in federal elections is compulsory for all eligible Australian electors. Citizens who fail to vote and are unwilling or unable to provide “a valid and sufficient reason for such failure” are fined $20, or $50 for repeat offenders. As a result, voter turnout has never fallen below 90 percent since compulsory voting was introduced in 1924. 

Theoretically, the justification is that voting is a civic duty, much in the same way that citizens are required to pay taxes or are mandated by the state to receive a certain level of education. In practice, the real benefit is that when voting is compulsory, it’s the government’s job to remove the obstacles keeping you from the ballot, not yours as a citizen. Australians have easy access to postal voting, pre-poll voting, voting at Australian overseas missions, and mobile voting teams sent to nursing homes and hospitals. The November same-sex marriage poll itself was a postal vote, which goes a long way to explain why participation was so high despite the vote being voluntary. 

But while the Australian government is bending over backwards to make it easier for their citizens to vote, some state governments in the U.S. are going out of their way to make it harder. Since 2010, 23 states have passed new voting restrictions, from more restrictive voter ID laws, to increased voter registration difficulty, to cutback on early voting. Some states, such as Michigan, have abolished early voting entirely. What these laws ultimately accomplish is making voting harder for everyone, but especially for poor and marginalized groups, members of which are more likely to lack the required photo ID or work long, inflexible hours and could benefit from early voting.

The bedrock of democracy is the idea that the government represents the will of the people, but it can’t do that if only 55 percent of the people are determining the course of the government. If the voting legislature we have in the U.S. today is really only capable of creating such a miserable voter turnout for the most important election our country has, then maybe it’s time to look to a country with greater successes and start taking notes.