The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What the U.S. can learn from Australia’s election process

Voters lined up to cast their ballots shortly before the polls opened in Owasso, Okla., on Tuesday morning. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World/AP)

Australia’s ambassador to the United States is nearly always a cheerleader for the Americans, but ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, Joe Hockey was unable to resist a small note of criticism.

“It can be really hard work trying to vote in USA,” he tweeted as voting got underway. “Registration, local voting, a work day, complicated voting mechanisms. Australia is blessed to have a genuinely independent and simple electoral process.”

In this, the ambassador speaks for most Australians. We are genuinely baffled by the way the United States runs its elections. This week, having spoken to some American friends, I know that opinion is returned: Americans find our system entirely bizarre. For a start, in Australia, voting is compulsory.  “So they throw you in jail if you don’t vote?” say my incredulous pals.

Well, no. But you do get a fine. At the moment, it’s $20 (about $14 in U.S. currency). A few nonvoters have taken the matter to court, but Australian judges have generally been unimpressed. People pay the fine and, if they don’t, they get hit with a bigger one.

The lowest Australian turnout was in 2016, and, even then, 91 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. Voter registration is also high, at 95 percent of those aged 18 and above. Surely being forced to vote is an infringement of individual liberty? That’s not how most Australians see it. For starters, you are not really forced to vote: whether you cast your vote on Election Day, or by mail, the law effectively requires your name to be ticked off the roll. You could choose to leave the voting paper blank, or even — as some do — add a spicy graffito to show your opinion of the politicians on offer.

The compulsory system has widespread support. As Hockey mentioned, voting takes place on a Saturday. There’s a carnival atmosphere — with sausages sizzling and cake stalls to raise money for local schools or charities. The election-day question “Have you decided?” often receives the jokey reply: “maybe the Lamingtons, but the Anzac biscuits also look good.”

Secondly, compulsory voting seems to strengthen the “middle path” in politics. Instead of focusing on motivating their “base” to get out and vote — articulating policies that might motivate  the true believers on either side — Australian political parties focus on winning the swinging voters that occupy the central ground. A leader such as President Trump — with both high approval and high disapproval rankings — would be less likely under the Australian system.

Critics say the system forces a vote from people with no interest in politics and little understanding of the issues. For me, that’s part of the point. I think of some of my own friends who obsess over politics know the most about it and often have the wackiest views. Observing the Australian voter in action over many decades, I’ve seen great wisdom emerge from the mildly uninterested.

Some other aspects of the Australian system are worth mentioning. Gifts to political parties must be publicly disclosed, unless they are under a cap of about $10,000. This requirement puts a break on donations, so the system also provides election-funding, via the taxpayer, to any candidate who achieves at least 4 percent of the first preference vote.

Speaking of which, voting is preferential. A left-wing voter, to quote an American example, could have cast a ballot for Ralph Nader in the campaign of 2000, and still been able to play a role in electing Al Gore, by means of a second preference vote. Preferential voting makes it less likely that a candidate can split the vote on one side, thereby delivering victory to the other side — as, arguably, happened in the United States in 2000. 

A final point: the whole Australian system — from voter registration, to Election Day and the count — is run by an independent, widely respected national body, the Australian Electoral Commission. There can be no attempt by local authorities to frustrate people’s right to vote.

The United States is so adept at talking about “exporting democracy.” Australians just wonder why it does such a bad job of making its own democracy work?

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