18 August 2013

Against Australian Democracy – In Defence of a Right to Vote

It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting.
Tom Stoppard

On 17 August, just three weeks out from the 2013 Federal Election, the Guardian Australia website reported that ‘17% of Australians aged 18-24 are not on the (electoral) roll, compared with 7.6% in the wider population.’  This amounts to more than a million eligible Australians who are not on the roll.
And I’m one of them.
So why is a middle-aged, middle class Australian, with a near life-long interest in the practice and theory of politics and without a (criminal) record, not on the roll?
Because I believe in the right to vote; and having a right to vote means having the right not to vote.
I’m not talking here about intentionally informal voting (with or without gratuitous depictions or commentary on the merits of the candidates), or about attending the polling booth, having your name marked off the roll, and using the voting papers for a bit of ad hoc origami. While those may be meritorious political tactics, my strategic focus is on not attending the booth at all.
There are lots of ways lawfully not to vote when residing in Australia, other than just being too young: be in prison for a sentence of three years or more; don’t be an Australian citizen; be of unsound mind or intellectually or physically incapable; oh…or have a religious objection.
Yes, a genuine religious objection will get you off; but only a religious one – a non-religious philosophical objection won’t do. So, for example, holding a sincere and well-considered belief in the right to vote, as opposed to the duty to do so, will not cut it.
Trust me; I know.
I debated it in the NSW Local Courts over the trifling matter of a local government election; arguing that, as local government is not constitutionally recognised, we shouldn’t be required to vote in their elections. I went down with a fine reduced from $110. (The magistrate, it seemed, was partly moved by my arguments – maybe she thought it was all pretty trivial, too).
Anyway I have a record of some sort, I guess, to accompany the $50 fine.
My well-considered response (I had a while as the next election was some way off) was pretty similar to the other million or so unenrolled people. I took the easiest way out in my quest for civil disengagement – if you can’t beat ‘em, don’t enlist in the battle.
I haven’t been on the roll now for nearly two years. It’s easy.
Whenever you move house, and you notify the state licensing/motor registry office and other government bodies of your new address, they tell you that they advise the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) of the changes, and ask if you would like to formally change your address on the electoral roll.
Guess what you do next? Nothing.
You don’t inform the AEC and you don’t respond to their cute letters inviting you to update your records. The AEC knows where you now live, but under current law can’t do anything about it. Being good bureaucrats, they hate that.
The AEC hates it because they don’t believe in, or enforce, the right to vote. They try to enforce the duty to vote. They’ve been seeking for some years a change to the law to require you to update your AEC records or to allow them to do it without your concurrence. So far, without success.
Of course the only problem with my strategy is that you can deny yourself the right to vote on those occasions when you otherwise might like to do so. Naturally you could re-enrol before an election of interest, but then the buggers have got you enrolled at your correct address until you move again.
I tell you, there are some advantages in being itinerant.
Of course, if voting wasn’t ‘compulsory’, we wouldn’t have to worry about this nonsense. But until this country grows up, treats us all like adults, and acknowledges that the right to do X entails the right not to do X, get with the million.
When you next move house, don’t tell the AEC.


Erikvond Aniken said...

On a pragmatic view, this might be the ideal system.
I'm entirely comfortable with the view that voting is better considered a duty - in the way jury duty is the price of the right to a trial by one's peers.
The idea that it's also enforced mostly by being a general community norm seems pretty good too. It's much better to allow the especially obsessive or anti-social such as Enrico a way out that does not make martyrs of them.
The only seriously objectionable element in this account is the piece about religion. It is both absurd and deeply offensive that some beliefs, tagged 'religious' are given a privileged status and allow their holders an exemption from a variety of laws that are imposed on others who may, as Enrico points out, have far better reasons for resisting them. This is even disgusting at the level of trivia such as school or other uniforms. Objections to the wearing, for instance, of a hat should be treated equally. Dignifying some sets of superstitions over other rational beliefs serves only to encourage the wickedness of sectarianism.

One way to improve even further the idea of voting as a duty would be to make it more like jury duty, and to impose on all adult citizens the small but real possibility that they may be selected, at random, to serve a term in the legislature. There are grounds for expecting an upper house selected by lot to outperform the one we have currently selected by ballot.

Dr Enrico Brik said...

The especially obsessive or anti-social such as Enrico...! Really, Erikvond, I must say that's a pretty emotive, pseudo-psychological response to a philosophical stance. You're perfectly entitled to your view, of course, but I'm not sure the jury system is much help as an analogy. I note that the majority of those who can't avoid jury duty are in the lower socio-economic echelons...

Anonymous said...

Dear Doctor Brik

An alternative view might be that citizens should be encouraged to participate in democracy by making informed choices about who they wish to be governed by. The effectiveness of democratic institutions arguably would be improved if we all worked towards that objective. It would probably be unfortunate if we ended up in a situation where our governments are selected by a minority of voters who care to get engaged - which appears to be the natural consequence if your strategy is adopted en masse?

(A politically aware public servant turned photography student, Brisbane).

Dr Enrico Brik said...

Alas for your argument, Mr Anonymous (may I assume its Mr?), the data on compulsory voiting are not at all that clear.

In some countries without compulsory voitng the turn out is routinely over 80%. In some countries with compulsory voting the proprtion of formal votes is less than 80%.

Compulsory voting is neither nec. nor suff. for willingness to engage in the electoral process; it is much more to do with the political culture of the nation state, quality of the candidates and the degree of confidence in the process and outcome.

Perhaps that is why so mnany of the countries with compulsory voting are former doctatorships or otherwise had authoritarian regimes. Check the Wikipedia entry on compulsory voiting for a list.