Australia is currently in the midst of deep political debate—Australia’s citizens are set to vote in a significant referendum near the end of 2023 to determine whether the constitution will be amended to include Indigenous voices. The importance of the issue is underlined by the voting policies established in Australia —people will have to voice their opinions. In Australia, referendums are treated similar to elections: they are mandatory to vote in.
After turning 18, every Australian is required to show up at the voting station unless a sufficient reason for not voting is provided. Historically, Australia has had impressively high voter turnout numbers after they implemented the compulsory voting practice in 1924. Since the institution of mandatory voting, Australia has always had more than 90 percent of eligible voters show up at the booths. In general elections, the numbers are similar: Australia has always had more than 89 percent of voters participate in the election after the implementation of mandatory voting.
The upcoming referendum once again opens the question: how do they achieve such high rates?
The turnout rates are not simply due to a requirement by law, but rather because of the means they provide to truly achieve it.
Availability of Citizens
Firstly, the Australian referendum or election day is on a Saturday. For context, the largest reason behind why people did not vote in the 2022 election of the United States was cited to be busy schedules on election day—a Tuesday. The lack of free time people have on election days around the world is a significant reason behind the lower turnout. One justification behind why the United States elections were set to be on a Tuesday in the 18th century is because most of America was rural and needed time to travel to the booths, a process that could take days.
In the modern world, most people do not work in agriculture. With the rise of employment in services and industry, the vast majority of the population works during the weekdays: Monday to Friday. People are only likely to vote if they have the time in their day to go to a polling booth and spend time casting a ballot. On a weekday, some people are tired after work and would rather go home to rest for the next day instead of standing in a long line to vote (often in the heat) or have other priorities in their mind like picking up their children from day-care or taking their children to classes; they quite simply do not have the referendum or election on their mind. Many cannot just take time off of work to vote, especially individuals that depend on each and every paycheck to pay the bills and provide food on the table for their families. The cash flow for many, justifiably, matters more than a vote. The theoretical argument of work impeding the ability for many to vote is an issue in many countries including Germany. On the other hand, the weekend offers Australian citizens a chance to truly consider the issue being discussed in the referendum or research the candidates in an election instead of making it an afterthought. Moreover, they guarantee paid time off for individuals to vote, which provides a higher chance that citizens are available to participate instead of being bystanders to a crucial democratic process in their country.
Election day in Australia has become a day for celebration instead of a task people unwillingly complete. For example, polling booths across Australia host fundraising stands from various local groups that sell snacks like “Democratic Sausages”: a tradition that motivates people (young and old) to vote because it serves as a place for gathering. Through developments, booths began offering more options including vegetarian food to create a more inclusive social event around elections. The existence of activities surrounding the elections can help to create a positive mindset towards the voting process and reduce the likelihood of individuals resenting the compulsory nature of the voting process. The mindset that is established is crucial when approaching elections since people ought to want to vote to create a strong system that prioritizes selecting the best leaders.
Besides the day of the week or the culture established, voting booths in Australia are much more accessible than many countries on an intuitive level. For starters, individuals can go to any polling location in the state/territory that they reside in. This is comparatively different to countries like the United Kingdom where you are required to vote at the specific polling booth listed on your poll card. The lack of flexibility means individuals are often less likely to vote since their assigned polling stations may have longer lines, their workplace might not be close to their specific polling station, or they simply find it to be a burden to vote in their local station. Australia also takes into account travelers. If citizens are in a different territory/country during the time of the vote, they can visit an interstate/overseas voting center or submit a postal vote if they cannot reach the center to vote.
Extending on that idea, Australia has taken extensive action to ensure most people have the opportunity to vote—even the most disadvantaged. For example, they have instituted policies that allow for telephone voting, an option that is specifically targeted to help individuals that “have low vision.” Additionally, to access areas that do not have a polling booth near them, Australia has mobile polling teams that visit remote areas and residential care facilities: an action that increases the ability for people across Australia to represent their views in government regardless of where they live. As a matter of fact, in the face of the upcoming referendum to determine whether the constitution gets amended, the Australian Election Commision has stated that they will be increasing the amount of polling teams that go to healthcare facilities to create more inclusivity. The decision to provide polling teams furthers the likelihood that the most vulnerable individuals are given a chance to vote.
Furthermore, if people cannot vote on the day of the referendum or election, Australia allows people to vote early. Early voting ensures that citizens have more freedom to vote and have many more chances to cast a ballot even if they are busy on the official voting day. For a whole country, one day of voting is often not enough to account for the differing lives of every individual. Compare this to countries around the world like France where early voting or absentee voting is not offered—a mechanism that decreases the likelihood that individuals can vote as demonstrated by the data from different parts of the United States in the 2012 election.
Expanding to Democracies Around the World
As a direct comparison to the turnout at past Australian referendums, the United Kingdom’s referendum to leave the European Union only had a 72.2 percent voter turnout. The lack of voter turnout appears to plague many of the most prominent countries in the world. In India, 67.4 percent of eligible voters voted in the 2019 election. In the United States, 66.8 percent of eligible voters went to the booths in the 2020 election. To further prove the lack of voter turnout, Canada had a 62.6 percent turnout in the 2021 elections. Democratic governments are founded upon the people’s voice, but when nearly a third of the population is left out of the consideration in a country, it is hard to call the country democratic.
Australia’s model, which will be on display in the upcoming referendum, could possibly serve as a mechanism by which to increase participation across the world; however, transposing the Australian voting system to democratic systems across the world requires a conversation within the respective countries among its citizens and the government on the way in which it is implemented.
A common argument made against accessible elections is the possibility of voter fraud and the reduction in democratic security; the potential trade-off requires a consideration about the different mechanisms that should be implemented to achieve both simultaneously instead of having to comprise one. In Australia, voter fraud was found to be fairly low because of the methods they have instituted behind the scenes to confirm votes and to reduce the likelihood of fraud including digital cross-referencing. On the surface, voting is largely accessible, but the intensive review process provides security on the back-end: accessibility and security do not have to be mutually exclusive.
The benefits of compulsory voting does not mean the implementation can be completely uniform. Voters in every country often go through personal struggles that limit their ability to vote, do not agree with any of the candidates running for election, which might necessitate the need for blank ballots to be an option for citizens as a sign of protest, or simply cannot afford the punishments that would ensue if they are unable to vote. So while the system is rigid, it ought to be fluid enough for people to avoid being trapped: they cannot vote, and when they do not, they cannot afford the punishment. The ultimate goal of compulsory voting is to maximize the amount of people interested in the voting process—not contribute to people loathing it because of the punishments they face.
When implementing a voting system, countries have to seriously consider the difficulties citizens face when attempting to vote in their country. Who are those citizens? The people who work on weekends because they do not make enough for a two-day break might require a national holiday; the people who live in areas that do not have polling stations nearby; the people who need access to public transportation to reach the booths; the people who are simply disinterested in the democratic process because of a lack of political education, or even the people who are unaware about voter registration. Implementing drastic policy change requires intensive policy analysis to ensure people do not get left out of consideration.
In the end, regardless of the voting model adopted by countries across the world, the bottom line is clear: the means for people to vote in an election are crucial for higher voting rates.