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From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting

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NOT MANY COUNTRIES compel their citizens to vote, but Australia is one. Voting is compulsory in nineteen of the world’s 166 electoral democracies and only nine strictly enforce it.

None of Europe’s most influential democracies has it, and none of the countries in the mainstream of Australia’s political development: not the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, New Zealand or Ireland.

People from our sister democracies are often astonished that Australians are compelled to turn up to vote: it seems an affront to freedom. We in reply are appalled at their low turnouts and the election of leaders and governments by a minority of voters. In the 2016 American presidential election the percentage turnout was in the high fifties. Donald Trump did not have the support of the majority of voters, but neither would Hillary Clinton had she won.2 Britain’s disastrous 2016 decision to leave the European Union was carried by a slim majority of the 72.2 per cent of voters who turned out.3 At Canada’s 2015 election, which brought Justin Trudeau to power, the turnout of 68.3 per cent was the highest in twenty years.4 These are percentages of registered voters, not of all those eligible to vote. In none of these countries is it compulsory to be on the electoral roll. In Australia registration has been compulsory since 1911. Turnout in Australian elections is always above 90 per cent of registered voters, and in the high eighties of those eligible to enrol.
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