David Leyonhjelm Proposes Abolishing Compulsory Voting

02/03/2016 2:25 PM AEDT | Updated March 2, 2016 18:31
Fairfax Media

Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm will introduce a proposal to abolish compulsory voting, doing away with Australia's long established practice in favour of a voluntary vote.

Leyonhjelm will add amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Bill, which contains the controversial senate voting reform laws that have been decried by Labor and the minor parties, on Wednesday. Among amendments pushing for senate campaign funding reform and optional preferential for the House of Representatives, is a proposal to shake up one of the fundamental tenets of Australian politics for more than a century -- our system of compulsory voting.

The Australian Electoral Commission reports voting has been compulsory in federal elections since 1924. Leyonhjelm said the measure has had its day in the sun.

"I find it peculiar Australia is so wedded to it. I don't think there is any great advantage to be gained, in fact there are disadvantages [to compulsory voting]," he told The Huffington Post Australia.

"It's said the right to vote is an important democratic principle but we don't say that about tax; tax is not a democratic principle, but you can be prosecuted for not doing either. How can it be a right if you're prosecuted for not exercising it? That's not a right."

Australia is one of few countries in the world where voting in political elections is compulsory. As of 2013, only 21 countries had compulsory voting, with Australia among the company of Uruguay, Argentina, Belgium, Honduras and Costa Rica. Our closest allies, England and the United States, do not have compulsory voting.

Not voting makes a person subject to penalty; the AEC states a person who doesn't vote may be liable for a $20 fine, but with a secret ballot system where your name is not recorded on the ballot, it is difficult to ensure voters submit a valid ballot and not a informal vote or blank ballot. Leyonhjelm said part of his push for voluntary voting was in anticipation of an electronic voting system where invalid votes may be traced back to the voter.

"Some people say you only need to get your name marked off. That's not technically correct; you are obliged to vote, but the only reason you're not prosecuted if you [informal vote] is because nobody knows that is what you did. If you had electronic voting, you could be seen to have not voted and under the current law it would be an offence," he said.

"We don't think government coercion should extend to that level, neither do most other countries. Australia is very unusual in having compulsory voting."

Voluntary voting obviously leads to lower voter turnout. In the USA, for example, the 2012 presidential election saw just 55 percent of the voting age population cast a ballot, while that number has not risen above 60 percent since 1968. Leyonhjelm said a lower turnout was a trade off he was happy to make, for what he sees as the associated political benefits of non-compulsory voting.

"Political parties and candidates would not only have to convince voters to vote for them, they would have to convince them to vote at all. That puts the onus on candidates and parties to present a compelling reason to vote. At the moment, [many people] vote on who they hate the most or least," he said.

"When it comes to the things [politicians] engage in, they have to think if they will score political points but also if it will get the people out to vote. That's healthy for democracy... we're not talking about an experiment which has never been done before, most of the world does this and the sky hasn't fallen."

Leyonhjelm said there "is no appetite among the major parties" for such changes, but said he would continue being a proponent of the changes in order to start the ball rolling on the issue being addressed in the future.

"I'm not under any illusion, but I keep putting this issue up and one day I will win, or someone will win," he said.

In other news, Leyonhjelm again warned the Liberal and Greens parties that an alliance of minor parties was contemplating running candidates in marginal lower house seats as retribution for the controversial senate voting laws. He said a conference of minor parties -- including the Sex Party, the Shooters and Fishers and other smaller parties -- in Sydney on Saturday would decide whether the plan would go ahead, but said his Liberal Democrats party was interested in running candidates for the House of Representatives.

"The intention would be to wreak some retribution the Liberals and Greens for their unholy alliance," Leyonhjelm said.

"It is potentially doable, but it's not up to me. We are very interested in the idea."

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