As Australians settle into our own campaign period, comparisons between our experience and the brouhaha taking place in the United States are inescapable. While the absence of suspicious hair, fake tans and gender diversity distinguishes our prospective leaders from their US counterparts, there is a further important element of our electoral process which sets us apart – mandatory voting.
While declining voter turnout saw Australia adopt mandatory voting back in 1924, there has traditionally been significant opposition to it in the United States. Some commentators reject it as unconstitutional or anti-liberal on the grounds that the right to vote necessarily includes the right not to vote. In addition, there is an elitist belief that voters should 'vote well or not at all', implying that an ill-informed or uneducated voter has a moral duty to not cast a vote.
This embrace of voluntary voting has led to lower voter turnout and proportionally fewer Americans being involved in the electoral process. According to Pew Research Center, in the last US presidential election in 2012, 84.3% of registered voters turned out to vote. In contrast, there was a registered voter turnout of 93.2% at the 2013 Australian federal election. What makes these numbers even more troubling is they only capture those people who had taken the trouble to register to vote; in that same US presidential election the percentage of Americans of voting age who actually voted was only 53.6% (the same figure for the 2013 Australian election was 80.5%). Clearly, a very large percentage of eligible American voters are avoiding the polling booth, but who are these people?
In the lead up to the 2014 mid-term elections, Pew found that non-voters tended to be poorer, younger, and less-educated than likely voters (a finding that aligned with a similar survey conducted before the 2012 presidential election). More than half of non-voters (54%) had not graduated college, compared to 72% of likely voters who had completed at least some college, and 46% had family incomes less than $30,000. More than a third (34%) of non-voters were under 30. Of those likely to be abstaining from voting, 43% were African-American, Hispanic or belonged to another ethnic or racial minority, compared to 22% of likely voters. In particular, 23% of non-voters were Hispanic, compared to 6% of likely voters and 15% of all adults. While these historical figures need to be analysed in light of contemporary circumstances, it is interesting to consider what impact mandatory voting could have on the 2016 presidential election.
On a basic level the Democrat candidate could expect a bump in numbers, according to the 2014 results, with 51% of non-voters either identifying as or leaning towards the Democrats, compared to just 30% identifying as or leaning towards the Republicans. However, the potential impact of mandatory voting goes beyond mere party preferences, as the knowledge that the vast majority of all eligible voters would be going to the polls would influence the focus and tenor of the candidates' campaigns. Some analysts have argued that the success of 'outsider' candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump has in part stemmed from deliberate attempts to mobilise people, on opposite ends of the political spectrum, who would not normally vote. Both candidates have done this by putting forward platforms that claim to address economic inequalities and promote greater isolationism, two policies which appear to have particular resonance with general non-voters.
However, for a candidate whose campaign has relied on xenophobia, the mandatory inclusion of a substantial number of minority voters could have a detrimental impact on Trump's presidential fortunes. Trump's profession to 'love Hispanics' while tucking into a taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo may be considered unlikely to make up for his plan to build a wall to keep out 'killers' and 'rapists' from Mexico. In a recent Gallup poll, 77% of Hispanics surveyed viewed Trump unfavourably, compared to only 12% who viewed him favourably.
Australia's voting system certainly hasn't removed dog-whistling from the Australian political discourse, but a similar system, if adopted in the US, might incentivise Trump and Trump-like candidates to tone down some of their rhetoric. Mandatory voting could also help break down systemic barriers to political engagement and influence among disadvantaged and minority groups. As the US electorate struggles with ideological division and voter disillusionment, shouldn't the government of the people and for the people be determined by all the people?
Photo: Getty Images/Ron Jenkins