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Time To Make Voting Mandatory?

By Marcus Roberts, Senior Researcher, Maxim Institute*

According to British judge and cabinet minister Baron Moulton, there are three types of human action. There is action which is regulated by the law. There is action governed by our unfettered free choice. But there is also a middle ground of actions subject to duty, personal consciousness, manners and “good form.” This middle ground is when we do things because we feel we ought to. It encompasses all the right actions that no one will force you to do… except yourself. According to Lord Moulton, a genuine test of civilizational greatness is whether we can trust people to follow their self-imposed laws rather than those imposed upon them. We should cherish this middle ground.

Moulton’s thoughts are especially relevant given the low turnout of voters in the recent local body elections. How might we fix such civic disengagement? One answer is to make voting in New Zealand legally mandatory; to remove it from the “middle ground” of actions that one ought to do.

Although such a move would be “radical” for New Zealand, around 15 per cent of the world’s democracies have some form of mandatory voting. Australia has had compulsory voting since 1924. If you fail to vote in Australia, you receive a fine in the mail of AUD20, which will escalate to over AUD200 and a visit to court if you don’t pay.

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Thanks to the secret ballot, mandatory voting doesn’t mean you actually need to vote for any party or politician – you can cast an “informal” ballot by leaving it blank or spoiling it in some way. Mandatory voting means mandatory turning up at the voting booth. In the last Australian election, around 5% of all votes cast were “informal.”

Does it work in increasing turnout? When Australia introduced mandatory voting, the turnout jumped from under 60% to over 90%. Each Federal election since then has seen a turnout of over 90% (the one exception was in 2022 when the number of people who voted for the House of Representatives was 89.82%). This turnout is higher than in New Zealand’s general elections which have tended to fluctuate between 70 and 85%. It is much higher than our local body elections which struggle to hit a 40% turnout.

But even if compulsory voting solves our low turnout troubles, it leaves more profound questions unanswered. Why is it that most people do not feel that they should vote in local elections? Is it that they have so little information about their local candidates? Would more open party affiliation for councillors and mayors solve this? Why do people think that voting won’t make a discernible difference? Is disengagement a legitimate democratic response?

For many New Zealanders, there is currently no incentive to turn out to vote. Mandatory voting addresses the symptom but will leave the root causes untreated.

We must understand and fix these root causes so that turnout does not fall to the point where democratic legitimacy is lost.

*Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

© Scoop Media

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