The Voluntary Voting Myth

Michael Duffy in the SMH today quotes the AEC’s Tim Evans, claiming that:

On balance, there is no empirical evidence that a move to voluntary voting would advantage one major party over another

I have no idea what evidence Evans and Duffy are thinking about, but I’d be keen to hear of it. The best Australian study on the topic (by Derek Chong, Sinclair Davidson and Tim Fry) found that:

In each of the last four elections, the Coalition would have had a far higher vote share under a voluntary regime than it does under the current compulsory voting regime. Similarly, in each election, the ALP would have had a smaller vote share.

As I pointed out when the study appeared, Chong, Davidson and Fry’s findings are particularly believable because they’re supporters of voluntary voting. However, they’re also good academics who are willing to admit clear evidence when they see it.

It’s also worth mentioning that US evidence supports them. Those who choose to vote under a voluntary regime are not a random sample of the citizenry. And why should we expect those who choose to go the ballot box to be perfectly representative of the population, when we don’t expect the same of those who choose to go to the football, to church or to a rock concert? 

Admittedly, there are more efficient alternatives to compulsory voting that would get the same result. I’d be quite happy with a regime that compelled a randomly selected 1/10th of the population to vote at each election (same goes for the Census). But I have a feeling that we’d have to teach more statistics at school before this met with universal approval.

* There is a slim possibility that when he says “advantage one party”, Tim Evans means “change the election result”. In this case, the statement would be true, just as it would be true to say that banning ALP candidates would not have changed the last four federal election results.

** On the principle that one should say nice things about people when possible, Duffy has a neat article on the scouting movement in today’s Age.

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5 Responses to The Voluntary Voting Myth

  1. Kevin Cox says:

    With cheap electronic voting we can experiment with many more systems. In other words the mechanics of voting should no longer dominate much of the debate. With cheap voting – and viewing voting as an economic system where votes are thought of as a form of currency that enable us to collective make choices we can extend choices for all types of community decisions. Why should we have to wait three years to make important community decisions – like a national school curriculum. We don’t have to make any of these decisions compulsory – and we can restrict the decisions to a subset of society. In fact we can vote on how we want to vote.

  2. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Thanks (again) for the plug.

    One concern I do have is that we were unable to extend the study through a change in government. We found voluntary voting to advantage the coalition who were also in government. At some stage in the future it would be interesting to see if that result holds for the coalition, or for the party in government. I’m not sure if the AES is going ahead this year – which is unfortunate because it may produce some very intersting data if a change in government occurs.

  3. Don Arthur says:

    I’m interested in how voluntary would influence campaign strategy.

    With compulsory voting the campaign is all about changing how people vote. But with voluntary voting the campaign also has to influence whether people vote at all.

    Would attempts to get out the vote lead to a more partisan campaign style? Right now there’s little point in whipping your base into a frenzy.

    Would campaigners target their opponent’s base using negative ads? After all, just because these people will never vote for you doesn’t mean you can ignore them. If they get disgusted with their candidate or politics in general then maybe they won’t vote at all.

  4. Russell says:

    Perhaps we do have voluntary voting – when Geoff Gallop resigned and a by-election was held for his seat 16,381 votes were cast, but there were 25,580 electors on the roll. Is this happening elsewhere?

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