28/09/2016 3:13 PM AEST | Updated 04/10/2016 2:28 AM AEDT

I Vote To Review Compulsory Voting

Freedom to express one’s dissatisfaction with government is the basic foundation of a free society.

Should we be fined for not doing this?
Asanka Brendon Ratnayake
Should we be fined for not doing this?

Compulsory voting was legislated here in Australia with the thought that a democracy would function better if the vote was a reflection of all the voters rather than a subset of those eligible to participate. While the ideals of those who brought compulsory voting into law may have been noble, it may be time to take a close look at what compulsory voting means today.

The first concern is compulsory voting is becoming a "cash cow" for government. There is very obviously a revenue stream for government in vigorous pursuit of those who did not make it to the polls for any reason on Election Day.

Was increasing government cash flow a motive of the authors of mandatory voting legislation? It should be a growing concerning that government is creating a dependency on collecting fines not only through failure to vote but a range of sources.

The fact is that the elderly, sick and poor are affected disproportionally. This practice is short circuiting a progressive tax system in which those who earn more pay a greater share of the cost of government.

While it may seem reasonable on first thought to blame all who did not vote as being lazy and getting what they deserve, when one applies some critical thinking to the situation it becomes clear that certain cohorts will experience far more difficulty getting out to vote than others.

The elderly, who may be dependent on others for transportation, those with chronic illness who may not be well enough on any given day to get out, and the poor in general are the most affected. There are also those who work on the day of Election, and despite legislation compelling employers to allow them time to vote may not logistically be able to get from work to the polling place and back or simply cannot afford the lost wages. No one should have a criminal conviction that could hinder employment for certain jobs because they could not get their designated polling place.

Those most likely to find themselves unable to vote are also those with the least capacity to pay a fine. Compulsory voting and the penalties associated disproportionally affect the most vulnerable in our society. This becomes exploitation of the poor. The world has seen the social unrest this ultimately leads to in places such as Ferguson, Missouri, where local government using police to extract fines from the poorest residents led to a string of tragic events. Do we really want to sit back and see Australia go down that same road?

Postal voting may be seen as an answer. However, while voting by mail may help to mitigate some of the concerns with accessibility for some, it does not completely eliminate the issue. Getting to a post office or mail box can still be an issue for many.

The nearest box to post mail is almost five kilometers from my house. While this may be further than most, for many posting a letter is far from convenient. This creates a barrier for those with limited means or disability.

And postal voting is not without some major problems. Here in Australia there were numerous problems with people who opted for postal voting not receiving ballots. Slow mail delivery delayed results dramatically. In Austria, problems with postal ballots have caused their Presidential election held this past May to be ruled invalid and the election must be held again. Viewing postal voting as a solution for the future is flawed as hand delivered written post is fast becoming as antique as the horse and buggy.

But none of this addresses the strongest argument to reconsider compulsory voting.

Perhaps the strongest reason to consider in re-evaluating compulsory voting is one of freedom. Despite not having any constitutional guarantee to freedom of speech here in Australia, we claim to value it. Freedom to express one's dissatisfaction with government is the basic foundation of a free society. The right to not cast a vote at all if one is not satisfied with any candidate or party is as fundamental as the right to cast a vote for what one believes in. Forced participation does not guarantee a true reflection of will of the voters. This is especially true in our party driven political system.

Perhaps it's time to review our current system. Maybe we will decide keeping compulsory voting as law is good. Perhaps it will be deemed criminal convictions and growing fines for not voting are counter productive to society. Maybe it's time to ditch it altogether. Whatever the outcome, the discussion needs to occur.