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In 1924, the Australian Government introduced compulsory voting. Prior to that date, Australia's voting system was voluntary and, like many other countries, there was no system in place to compel Australian citizens to vote in federal and State elections. For a democracy to function well, every citizen should have an equal right to vote on the leadership of the country and the opportunity for that vote to be collected and counted. Compulsory voting was an important step for Australian politics and was not passed without some controversy. Compulsory voting has brought about great social debate about the nature of democracy and freedom in politics, both in the 1920s and today. Australia is one of many countries that use a form of compulsory voting in federal elections. Other countries include Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Egypt, Greece, and Singapore.

The Steps to Compulsory Voting

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In 1901, enrolment and voting in federal elections was entirely voluntary. There was no reason for an Australian citizen to vote in a State or federal election unless he or she really wanted to. Compulsory voting seemed like a distant mirage that Australia didn't really need and its introduction seemed more like an accident than a well-planned strategy for political power.

In 1908, permanent rolls were established. People who were eligible to vote were able to enrol themselves on a list of Australian voters. By 1911, enrolment was made compulsory so that the government could keep track of the number of Australian voters.

Compulsory voting was first used in 1915 for the Queensland State election. In addition to elections, compulsory voting is used for a federal referendum (a proposal to alter the Commonwealth Constitution). A third instance of compulsory voting in Australia has been a plebiscite (a yes or no vote on a particular issue). For example, in 1916 and 1917, the government held two plebiscites on conscription. Both times the Australian population voted against conscription. The Compulsory Voting Act 1915 (Cth) was passed before these plebiscites were held. This legislation aimed to ensure that the plebiscites recorded a true indication of the opinion of the populace.

A royal commission was held into Commonwealth electoral legislation. The commission recommended that compulsory voting be taken up for Commonwealth elections. Despite this recommendation, compulsory voting was sidelined for a few years.

Then in 1918, the issue of compulsory voting was raised once again. Nationalist MP Sydney Sampson proposed the addition of compulsory voting for Commonwealth elections to the Electoral Bill. He was responding to the frequent discussion that compulsory voting be instituted at a national level.

Immediately, Sampson's proposal met with opposition. People argued that it would be difficult for voters to access polling booths and that compulsory voting was an infringement on their rights. In the debate that ensued over compulsory voting, supporters emerged. Australian Labor Party member William Maloney described voting as 'a sacred duty' and that 'democracy demands its performance'.

The Minister for Home and Territories and National Party member Patrick Glynn complained that there was no need for change - there was already a steady increase in voter turnout in Commonwealth elections. With this, the opposition grew too great - Sampson's proposal was rejected and compulsory voting was sidelined yet again.

It was revived once more in 1924 by Nationalist Senator Herbert Payne. The controversy over compulsory voting had died down and the National-Country government didn't much care whether or not it was instituted. Payne expressed interest in introducing compulsory voting into Commonwealth elections in a private member's bill and the National-Country government allowed him. Payne and associate Edward Mann sponsored the bill in the Upper and Lower House and it seemed, almost by accident, that the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924 (Cth) slipped through in July 1924.

The first election in which compulsory voting was used on a national level was in 1925.

Advantages of Compulsory Voting

Voting is part and parcel of being a citizen of a democracy - an important civic duty which is as important as paying taxes and serving on juries. Compulsory voting gives voters more power in electing their preferred candidates - it has been said that voluntary voting advantages the conservative parties as people from low socio-economic backgrounds do not feel as strongly about voting as conservative supporters. It equalises participation - people from all over the political spectrum have an opportunity to voice their opinions. The franchise that women and other disadvantaged groups have fought for can be used.

Compulsory voting does not actually compel anyone to vote - voters can always choose to fill the ballot paper incorrectly or destroy it. What is compulsory is attendance at the voting booth, not the actual voting.

It can enforce political education - when people have to vote, they have to have an understanding of who they are voting for and what the political parties are promising to achieve for Australia.

There were few problems in administering the change to compulsory voting and there was no public demand for it to be removed.

Opposition to Compulsory Voting

The major opposition to compulsory voting focuses on its nature as a democratic process. Is it democratic to compel your citizens to vote in an election? Wouldn't the highest form of freedom and democracy be the right to not vote, if you should choose not to? When the debate over compulsory voting was raging, compulsion to vote was considered a failure of democracy by some and one more step toward dictatorship.

The problem with opposition to compulsory voting was that no better solution was suggested. The benefits far outweighed the disadvantages.

Preferential Voting

Another innovation in the voting process which saw its debut in the 1920s was preferential voting, used in federal elections when electing candidates to the House of Representatives. Before preferential voting was introduced, the candidate who gained the most votes won the election. This system is also known as 'first past the post'.

The preferential system is slightly more complicated but brings many more benefits. The voter indicates his or her preference for candidates, from number 1 (most desirable), the voter numbers all the different parties to the least desirable. The winner must gain a majority vote (which is 50%). If no candidate has a majority vote, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their votes redistributed among the remaining candidates. This process continues until a majority is found.

The preferential voting system did not have as bumpy a road to acceptance as compulsory voting. It was introduced in 1918 by Prime Minister Billy Hughes in response to the rise of the Country Party. Billy Hughes used preferential voting to allow competition between the Labor Party and Country Party without losing seats to other minority parties. It was first used at Corangamite in Victoria in the by-election on 14 December 1918. Preferential voting was smoothly introduced into both the Upper and Lower Houses, Municipal, State, Territory, and federal elections, as well as other non-political elections such as trade unions, church, company boards, football clubs.

Advantages of Preferential Voting

The main advantage is the opportunity for the Australian voter to have an opinion on every party up for election.

The winning candidate will always be the one most preferred by the voters of an individual electorate. No votes are wasted - if a voter's first choice is not selected, the other preferences will still be considered for election. Voters have more opportunity to express their political opinion by voting for minor parties and independent candidates.

Disadvantages of Preferential Voting

Preferential voting is much more complicated than 'first past the post'. It forces voters to rank parties which they may not support, otherwise their vote will be incomplete and illegitimate. As a result, the voter must have a better understanding of the voting process. Lack of understanding of the voting process can lead to informal voting or 'donkey votes'. Informal voting is where a voter does not follow the rules of voting. In such a case, the vote is not counted. An example is using a tick rather than a number in the appropriate box. A 'donkey vote' is a vote where the voter has not engaged with the process at all. An example is simply numbering the first box on the page without evaluating the various candidates.

These concerns, however, with preferential voting should not detract from the overall benefits that allow Australians more freedom in the selection of their government.

Impact of Compulsory and Preferential Voting

The result of compulsory voting in Australia is clear, particularly in voter turnout, that is the number of people who go to vote on an election, this number drastically increased once voting was made compulsory and there were fines and possible imprisonment if a citizen did not vote.

Voter turnout before compulsory voting was passed for federal elections:

1917 - 81.34 per cent
1919 - 71.33 per cent
1922 - 57.95 per cent of registered voters turned out to vote for Senate
59.38% of registered voters turned out to vote for House of Representatives

Voter turnout after compulsory voting was passed:

1925 when 91.31 per cent of voters turned out for Senate
91.38 per cent of voters turned out for the House of Representatives
1926 - 91.07 per cent for Referendum
1928 - 93.61 per cent
1929 - 94.85 per cent
1931 - 95.02 per cent

This trend was not limited to federal elections but was mirrored in State elections as each State and Territory adopted compulsory voting:

NSW (1928) - 82.5 then 94.9 per cent
VIC (1926) - 59.2 then 91.8 per cent
QLD (1915) - 75.5 then 88.1 per cent
SA (1942) - 50.7 then 88.5 per cent
WA (1936) - 70.1 then 91.6 per cent
TAS (1928) - 81.9 then 95.0 per cent

The Northern Territory had difficulty instituting compulsory voting because of the geographical size of electorates and sparseness of population in rural Australia.

The number of informal votes increased as a result of the introduction of compulsory and preferential voting. People who had no preference over the political party leading Australia often chose not to mark their ballot papers.

How to vote

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On a Saturday when voting is held, all the people in Australia who are eligible and enrolled to vote will go to a designated local place, usually a school hall, where they can cast their vote.

Once you are at the school hall you must be marked off a roll which has your name, address and voting enrolment details to record that you have cast a vote and will not be fined for neglecting your electoral duties.

If you are unable to cast a vote - perhaps you are in hospital or on a trip overseas or cannot make it to a polling booth - you can submit your vote in a variety of different ways, including postal vote, 'pre-poll' vote, provisional vote, or absentee vote.

If you are eligible or enrolled to vote and do not vote, it is considered an illegal act. A penalty notice will be sent within three months. You can then cast a vote or go to court. If you don't vote and can't provide a good reason why you didn't vote, a fine will be issued. If the fine isn't paid and no vote is made, there is even the possibility of going to jail.

Once your name has been marked off the roll and there is no chance that you will ever go to jail for not voting, the various ballot papers are given to the voter.

According to the Commonwealth Electoral Act, a voter will then 'retire alone to an unoccupied booth where in private, a vote is marked on the ballot paper.'

If you want your vote to count, then you fill out the ballot paper by numbering the parties in your order of preference, so your most preferred party or the party you want to see in power you place as number 1 and the party you definitely do not want to be in government you number in last place. So if there are 15 parties to choose from, you number the party you don't like number 15 and the party you do like as number 1.

Alternatively, you could cast what is called a 'donkey vote' where you number the ballot paper boxes from top to bottom, the top box being your first preference, the second box being your second preference, and so forth. A 'donkey vote' usually reflects the apathy of the voter - that you don't care about the outcome of the election.

Then you leave the booth, fold your ballot paper and slide it into a box. Off you go, you've voted!

When the votes are counted, this is how the preferential voting system works:

If one party receives more than 50 % of first preference (the number 1) vote, then that party has absolute majority and is elected. There is no need to look at the preferences.

But it is not very often that parties get 50% of the first preference vote. In this case the candidate with the least number of first preference votes is eliminated. Then if one party has a majority of votes, that party is elected. If not, then the party with next least number of votes is eliminated and so it goes until one party is found with more than 50% of the vote.

Don't worry if it sounds confusing - there are experienced people to count the votes.

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Chapters: Voting The Country Party Unionism and the ACTU

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Question 1/5

1. Where was preferential voting first used?

Corangamite in Victoria in 1918

The referendum of 1917

The referendum in 1916

Alice Springs in the Northern Territory in 1915