Voter turnout – compulsory vs voluntary

Nicolas Sarkozy? Not in this round.

The recent elections in France highlight the differences in the numbers of voters who actually vote in the electoral process in different countries and depending on whether the country embraces compulsory voting or allows voluntary engagement in the electoral process. There are some amazingly interesting questions that can be posed about voting trends based on the political and social histories of different countries.

In the BBC online magazine this morning, Tom Geoghegan posed this question:

‘The turnout in the first round of the French presidential election was more than 80%. The last time that number went to the polls in the UK was 1951. Why do so many French vote?’

In fact, with the exception of 2007, France has a fairly consistent voter turnout in the 70 to 80% range, the highest percentage being 82.69% in 1956. Maybe it has to do with France’s revolutionary past, maybe not. But it is the French Presidential elections – less voters turn out for the French Parliamentary elections. Equally interesting is the high Socialist vote in this first round, but that’s another article another time.

Francois Hollande made a surprising showing.

Tom could be a bit clearer with his comments. His figures are comparing French Presidential elections with the UK Parliamentary elections – hardly the same kettle of fish. Between Tom’s high of 81.89% in the UK in 1951 to the 65.77% in 2010, the UK percentage until this century was always in the mid to high 70% and is, on average, higher than the percentage of voter turnout enjoyed by France in its Parliamentary elections.

To compare the same electoral process in Australia where voting in the Federal elections has been compulsory since 1924, the percentage of voting public is never out of the mid to high 90% range.

The difference between these three countries can be seen in the percentage of invalid votes cast. It varies between 1.8% and 6.80% in Australia where voters can be legitimately ticked off the electoral roll and create a nonsense vote in the privacy of the voting booth should they want. Far less invalid voting papers are cast in both France and the UK where voting is voluntary and voters are motivated by reasons other than a fine for failure to vote.

In the UK the percentage of invalid votes dips markedly down to between 0.1% and 1.03% and in France (Parliamentary elections), between 1.4% and 5.3%. So possibly on average, the difference in voting responsibility less marked than I would have thought.

Interestingly, the percentage of invalid votes cast at the French Presidential elections started at 0.7% in 1965 and shot up to 5.4% in the 2002 elections before dropping back to 4.2% in 2007. It will be interesting to see the figures for this current election. The French are engaged with their Presidential elections and that is because of their history, I think.

There are pros and cons tossed around for compulsory vs voluntary voting. The different points are reproduced from a Research Brief in this article. It is worth a read. There are some pathetic reasons listed on both sides and they veer more to sentimentality and national flag waving. I am not impressed. Be that as it may, I have a preference for compulsory voter registration and compulsory voting regimes.

Of the pros on compulsory voting the compelling pro for me is that the legitimacy of the elected government is much more acceptable under the compulsory system.

The commonly voiced con argument that it is undemocratic to force people to vote doesn’t really constitute a point at all. The populace is forced to consent to the laws of the land, taxation and compulsory schooling. There is acceptance without question of any financial largesse emanating from the government coffers. To my mind there is an obligation as well as a right to have a say in the running of the society and the makeup of the government.

I still prefer compulsory voting systems. I noted in Australia that there is much more engagement with the political agenda and with political parties than I have noticed so far here in Scotland.

I would finish by agreeing with Cam Riley in saying that while electoral reform can be well and fairly motivated, beware the political parties. They are far more interested in reform (or non reform) that advantages them. As Cam says: ‘Too personal for my liking’.

I don’t trust them either. So my little study of psephology will continue and my understanding will develop. Quite fascinating really.


2 comments on “Voter turnout – compulsory vs voluntary

  1. Jason says:

    Voter turnouts in Australia are only 81%. It’s around 93% of registered voters but over 10% of eligible voters are not registered to vote, due in part to compulsory voting. We also have a high level of informal and donkey votes, also due to compulsory voting. So compulsory voting actually drives voter turnouts down. Our turnouts are probably a lot lower than 81%. People don’t even understand why it’s important to vote in Australia, and the politicians don’t need to tell them… there’s no need to motivate anyone to vote. They don’t educate, inspire or empower anyone to vote because they don’t need to. You’d notice the difference if you spent an election campaign in Australia – bland is an understatement. Only ten countries in the world enforce compulsory voting and the other 9 are no great bastions of democratic freedom – far from it.

    • Veronique says:

      Informal and donkey voting is not that high in Australia (you would expect some and I have been a deliberate donkey voter in my time) and sometimes has to do with the poor quality of candidates (my excuse). Don’t use figures that relate to a different statistical set and try to compare them with another set. That’s not kosher.

      Last count that I know was 31 countries using compulsory voting in some election tiers.

      I understand voter apathy – that is why compulsory voting is often introduced. It does increase voter awareness despite your bent to the opposite. In any case you have another agenda – to get rid of compulsory voting – my bet is that you are a Liberal Party supporter.

      I actually addressed your comment in my next blog post. I have been intimately involved in local and state politics in Australia most of my adult life. Just so you know.

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