Compulsory voting

Voting for all levels of government - federal, state and municipal - is compulsory. There has been much debate over making it voluntary, but so far things have not changed.

The Australian Electoral Commission has published arguments for and against compulsory voting (

  • For:
    • Voting is a civic duty comparable to other duties citizens perform e.g. taxation, compulsory education, jury duty
    • Teaches the benefits of political participation
    • Parliament reflects more accurately the "will of the electorate"
    • Governments must consider the total electorate in policy formulation and management
    • Candidates can concentrate their campaigning energies on issues rather than encouraging voters to attend the poll
    • The voter isn't actually compelled to vote for anyone because voting is by secret ballot.
  • Against:
    • It is undemocratic to force people to vote – an infringement of liberty
    • The ill informed and those with little interest in politics are forced to the polls
    • It may increase the number of "donkey votes"
    • It may increase the number of informal votes
    • It increases the number of safe, single-member electorates – political parties then concentrate on the more marginal electorates
    • Resources must be allocated to determine whether those who failed to vote have "valid and sufficient" reasons.

What do you think?  Have your say. Join the conversation below.


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  • Peter Newland
    commented 2023-09-14 22:49:29 +1000
    John de Wit, less empty negative comments please.

    I’m happy to answer real questions if you’re not yet clear how DCAP works to guarantee fair results. I sympathise – it took me ages to fully understand why current voting systems fail voters and then years to work out how to correct it and then to twig to the simple maths behind it and finally to be able to give simple examples that demonstrate it.

    E.g. it is not obvious that my DCAP system is correct when it will declare that Party D, of 4 parties standing, and with 45% first preferences is the winner despite Party A having 51% first preferences. But that is correct IF, repeat IF, in the election Party A had 49% of 4th (or LAST) preferences and party D had 55% of 2nd preferences. I have proved that particular case, no matter what preferences parties B and C get within the values I specified. Can anyone prove me mathematically &/or logically wrong there? No way! The correct Proportional results in a 100 seat electorate is NOT A=51 seats and D=45 Seats. The correct results is A=27 Seats and D=41 seats with B&C sharing the remaining 33 seats.

    So, it will not be a majority Government for A in its own right. Rather, it will be a minority government, of probably D in coalition with B or C; or, a slim chance of A running a minority government. Apart from the speculation of who will arrange a coalition; who can logically prove I’m wrong and that that voters preferences showed that they collectively wanted A as a majority government? It can’t be done unless you ignore voters’ clear collective preferences. The fact is that a marginal “absolute majorities” may be a real win; or, a travesty of electoral justice simply because Distribution of Preferences (AKA Instant Run Off) and First-Past-The-Post systems are inherently incapable of guaranteeing a fair result.

    I have proved that. I challenge anyone to prove me wrong.
  • John Henry
    commented 2023-09-14 16:55:04 +1000
    Peter Newland,
    Your arithmetic is very complex compared to a single vote for the party of your choice. There is no assumption that you should agree with every policy of that party. You just choose the party and candidate you think is best.
  • Peter Newland
    commented 2023-09-14 16:17:29 +1000
    For those interested, the simple arithmetic to convert my earlier example with preferences
    1 2 3
    A 40 0 60
    B 40 60 0
    C 20 40 40
    into number of seats earned under Proportional Preferential counted by Borda or DCAP
    First, Preference AVerages (PAVs)
    PAVa = (40×1 + 0×2 + 60×3)/100votes = 2.2
    PAVb = (40×1 + 60×2 + 0×3)/100votes = 1.6
    PAVc = (20×1 + 40×2 + 40×3)/100votes = 2.2
    B, with PAV = 1.6 is clearly the closest to unanimously first preference of PAV=1.
    A and C tie for second place with PAVs = 2.2.
    A’s downfall is that it is significantly more unpopular than it is popular.

    Then, to translate that into seats, first calculate DCAP scores where
    DCAPa= 40, DCAPb=70, and DCAPc=40 , which adds to 150.
    So, scaling that to the 100 seat vacancies and with rounding (arbitrarily, in favour of 1st preference tallies to remove the dead heat for 2nd place),
    we get A=27 seats, B=47 seats and C=26 seats.

    For more explanation, including on Borda, see starting with the 1-page [Absolute Majority v Democracy.pdf] and then perhaps browse the [0-Voting Reform – how … ] directory.
  • Peter Newland
    commented 2023-09-14 15:21:54 +1000
    John de Wit, those arguments are seriously flawed.
    Using Proportional Representation without Preferences, as you propose, effectively assumes that a vote for a party totally agrees with that party and has no preference for any of the other parties. No wonder people are reluctant to vote under such conditions – who could possibly endorse every policy of a party???

    More to the point, the arguments you gave in no way refutes my proof that Preferential Proportional representation adds value because it is well able to discriminate between parties with equal primary votes based on the collective preferences of the voters.
  • John Henry
    commented 2023-09-14 09:49:16 +1000
    Peter Newland,
    This is not how proportional representation works. In your example, party A with 40 seats, B with 40 and C with 20 – no single party has more than 50% of the seats and therefore no mandate to govern. The way this is resolved in a proportional system is that a coalition is formed. A + B, A + C or B + C. This requires negotiation. Unresolvable issues of principle are set aside or resolved by a parliamentary ‘conscience’ vote. This sometimes makes the forming of a new government a slow process, but one great advantage is that decisions made are lasting. Long term policies and projects can be realized. The pattern of build-up – tear-down changes of government that we have in Australia can be avoided. And parliamentary discussions could become a bit more civilized.
    Preferential voting means you don’t trust the party you voted for to form the necessary coalition. E.g., If you want party A, but absolutely not party C, then you could indicate this in your preferential vote. But if you don’t trust party A to do the right thing then why vote for them at all.
  • Peter Newland
    commented 2023-09-13 23:02:33 +1000
    John de Wit, good comment, BUT:
    to claim that preferential voting is superfluous with proportional representation is not logically sound because preferential voting may make zero difference or it could make the difference between a just or an unjust election.

    It is fact that PREFERENTIAL proportional voting counted by Borda or similar guarantees the fairest possible result. I thought I’d explained that clearly before, but apparently not – and admittedly it is not intuitively obvious.

    However, simple arithmetic and common sense consideration of a simple example easily demonstrates my claim and hopefully will bring readers to that AHA! moment:

    Suppose parties A, B and C contest 100 seats. If A gets 40% of 1st preference votes, B gets 40% and C gets 20%, then the simplistic proportional-only voting system rates A and B equal; with 40 seats each and C with 20 seats. That may be fair or unjust depending on voter preferences.

    So I’ll choose an extreme example which identical first preference votes but where ignoring other preferences gets results badly wrong: if PREFERENTIAL Proportional voting showed that A got zero (0%) 2nd preferences while B got 60% of 2nd preferences, then it is crystal clear that in this example:

    Party B is far more popular than Party A,

    How many seats? It’s easy to work out exactly (rounded to nearest fit to 100 seats) using Borda or my DCAP methods as explained elsewhere on this site. Both methods give the same guaranteed fairest possible result whereas ignoring other-than-1st-preferences got it badly wrong.

    OK, that’s an extreme example. But in a real-Iife election it illustrate clearly how it could make the difference between which of two radically different parties wins the balance of power. That could be the difference between a just and an unjust result.
  • John Henry
    commented 2023-09-13 11:38:48 +1000
    Peter Newland,
    I totally agree with Keith Bottomley. Compulsory voting is an insult to voters. If you don’t cast a vote, it simply means you accept the decision of the people who did vote. There is nothing wrong with that. You also mention “guaranteed-fair voting methods”, but fail to mention the fairest system i.e., proportional representation. With the current regional seat system, we can have governments that do not reflect the popular vote, i.e., do not have the mandate of the people – and there you have a guaranteed detestable government. You also mention preferential voting, which becomes superfluous with proportional representation. Preferential voting is just plain silly – it just obfuscates the failings of our current system, where votes of the losing parties are discarded per seat, and even if counted, they are unequal, because of regional differences in population. With proportional representation we would not need a divisive “Voice to Parliament” referendum – we could have an Indigenous Party that actually has a chance of getting seats in Parliament. That is a voice worth having. Our current regional-seat-based system for electing a government, coupled with preferential numbering of candidates on our ballot papers, makes us look stupid to people who are used to proportional representation. They tick just one box. They say why don’t you just count the votes, and the party (or combination of parties) with the most votes forms the government. It’s so simple. The mandate of the people is clear. And compulsory voting – that should not be allowed at all – it violates their rights as a voter!
  • Peter Newland
    commented 2023-09-13 10:48:34 +1000
    John de Wit, I fully agree that having a referendum on the voice is an insult and wasteful. A donkey vote is impossible with only one box for Yes orNo.

    Is it really too hard to decide Yes or No?
    It is a serious issue where we decide between, in essence:

    A YES vote to give special rights to some people based on their race, i.e, who their ancestors were,

    A NO vote to maintain equal rights for all Australians regardless of who their ancestors were.
  • Peter Newland
    commented 2023-09-13 10:32:04 +1000
    Keith Bottomley, I’ve never before heard your argument – [that when they first held elections only a few people were interested and all the candidates didn’t get the number of votes required so they all lost their deposit and no one was elected]. Please give us more details: e.g., what ‘first elections’, where, when, – and I’m not sure when deposits were first required.

    Of course we prefer our first choice: but what if we greatly dislike another candidate? In that case, surely wouldn’t we prefer a second choice rather than risk getting our worst nightmare candidate elected? In other words, preferential voting is far superior to fist past-the-post where it’s possible for a candidate to win with barely 10% of the vote if there are less than 10 candidates.

    If you don’t vote, that takes no responsibility for who governs – such apathy can make it easier for a party pushing an agenda you detest to take over – and that apathy can result in detestable government – so it’s safer and more responsible to try and put the best first AND PUT THE WORST LAST, doing your best to number every box.

    Then of course the votes need to be counted fairly. But sadly most common vote counting methods are simply incapable of guaranteeing a fair result. That’s why we need vote-counting-reform to insist on using only guaranteed-fair voting methods such a discussed in the “A Fair Voting System” section on this site.
  • John Henry
    commented 2023-09-12 14:58:43 +1000
    What an insult to voters! First we are forced into a frivolous referendum about a voice. Then we are told it is compulsory. I think there are good arguments for both cases – but I have to vote yes or no. For me the only good vote is a donkey vote – because I can’t decide. I would rather not turn up to vote at all. I hope the invalid votes are counted as well. This would be a good indicator of how many people cannot decide – or are totally against this whole wasteful referendum.
  • Anonymous
    commented 2023-09-11 10:49:34 +1000
    Compulsory voting in Australia started decades ago because when they first held elections only a few people were interested and all the candidates didn’t get the number of votes required so they all lost their deposit and no one was elected. Today people are interested in the way Australia will be run and want to cast a vote. So compulsory voting should stopped. Sometimes people don’t want to vote for any of the candidates because there is no one they like or trust to vote for. Other people have no idea what is going on and we get a donkey vote and that is really dangerous and unacceptable. The Preference voting should also be got rid of. No one wants a second choice you vote for who you want to win and for that person only.
  • Anonymous
    followed this page 2023-09-11 08:27:07 +1000
  • Peter Newland
    commented 2023-04-30 16:06:02 +1000
    I plead ignorance re block-chain techniques. But yes we need robust voter ID. My main concern is as I’ve expressed in the “A Fair Voting System”. This section is about Compulsory Voting which I strongly endorse as a Responsibility to earn our Rights.
  • John Wick
    commented 2023-04-30 14:37:12 +1000
    Which consensus do you guys suggest? PoW? PoET?
  • John Henry
    commented 2022-06-09 17:54:38 +1000
    My vote is not equal to all other votes. My vote is discarded when I do not vote for the winner in my electorate.
    This is an unfair system.
    Even though this was a federal election – i.e. all of Australia – I cannot vote for a member of parliament of Australia outside my limited electorate. The members in the House of Representatives, represent all of Australia. Why can’t I vote for someone I think has more merit for Australia, than the local yokel.
    As an extra slap in the face for voters – voting is compulsory.
  • JJSparrow
    commented 2022-05-23 08:55:45 +1000
    Australia is meant to be a country of Rights & Freedoms, not Complusion or Mandates.

    The only things you can’t do is harm, injury or cause the death of others, as these are crimes.

    To a lessor extent, maintain the peace, do not cause loss, damage, theft or fraud.

    I ultimately have the right to decide for myself. To choose to do or not do a thing. Forcing people is beyond the spirit of the country.

    Just as our rights are not expressed in the constitutions of Federal & State, not are mandatory or compulsory powers.

    If you are in protest of the whole system that exists, the most peaceful protest is to not vote.
  • Wendy Gaylord
    commented 2022-05-16 16:33:18 +1000
    My thing is that voting is not actually compulsory in federal elections. No one at the polls actually tracks what you do with the ballots once they’re handed to you. The only thing they track is whether or not you showed up to verify your voter registration details. If you don’t show up you get fined. I’m a huge advocate for voting, I just think the word compulsory is misleading and makes some of the Against arguments irrelevant.
  • Peter Newland
    commented 2022-04-18 12:00:07 +1000
    John de Wit compulsory voting at least has the advantage that people are confronted with the need to choose or else put up with what others decide for them.

    Donkey votes can be overcome with Robson Rotation so that the donkey votes cancel each other out on average. However, Robson Rotation makes it virtually impossible for Parties to issue How-To-Vote cards which makes it harder for voters to figure out where each party or candidate stands and so harder for voters to use various party HTVs to decide their own preferences. For example, many years ago as new-comer to an electorate and voting at a small polling place with almost no party workers handing out HTV cards, and knowing little about candidates or parties, I used a party HTV, of a party I disliked, to work out which were the candidates I wanted to vote for.

    As advocated elsewhere, I think we should allow SPLIT Optional Preferential Voting where a voter can preference their first couple of preferences and their last couple of preferences and leave the other don’t-care/don’t-know preferences blank. This can be counted absolutely fairly with my DCAP vote counting system which is very compatible with Block-Chain Voting. It is also best done with paper ballot papers scanned at the polling place where electronic voting is available at the same voting-machine-scanner and the machine offers the complete vote with the don’t-care/don’t-know preferences filled in with the exact equivalent equal don’t-know/don’t care value for the voter’s approval. This makes the system high secure in that a voter-fraudster can’t get away with adding an extra-1 to make the vote informal. And using block-chain, the vote is open and transparent.

    This system also allows voters to opt out because they can simply vote all 1s or all 9s for each of 9 candidates in every box and the machine asks the voter to approve “All equal 5, OK?” or if there are 10 candidates “All equal 5.5, OK?”

    And of course the system will collect info on how many voters do opt out this way.

    All things considered, I think Robson-Rotation results in more voter ignorance because parties simply can’t publish HTVs. Now it is probably feasible to allow Parties to register HTV in 1 to N preference order and for a voting machine to translate that to the ballot paper order for whatever Robson Rotation is offered to that voter, but that simply is equivalent to the evil of Vote-1 above the line and undoes the alleged benefits of Robson Rotation. Hence I think RR is net negative because it keeps voters ignorant.

    The best way to counter voter ignorance is probably to ban Robson Rotation and allow parties to print HTVs but with it mandatory that every HTV clearly identify the party affiliation of every candidate so that voters can better assess candidates.

    There should also be a mandatory requirement for Senate voters to number EVERY Square Above-The-Line, which would effectively force parties to produce HTVs that corresponded to the old Group-Voting-Tickets used for the old Vote-1-Above-The-Line system that parties had little problem doing. This then is a marvellous resource to educate voters about what parties stand for. Plus, with my DCAP counting system using SPLIT Optional Preferential Voting, voters could be required to mark say a minimum of 8 Squares ATL, so they could mark their first few and their last few preferences or mark the lot.

    It should also be mandatory for the AEC to educate voters on how to vote to best effect. It is absolutely scandalous that the AEC makes no effort to educate voters that it is quite easy to Vote-1-to-6 ATL in such a way that it is highly unlikely for you vote to influence the election of a single candidate – and also to ignore the common false and misleading claim made on some HTVs encouraging voters to include a major party as, say, #6 to “make sure your vote doesn’t exhaust”. All that does is to possible benefit the major party WITHOUT guaranteeing that your vote will not exhaust. Such a vote can easily exhaust and be totally useless. How? If the major party gets say 2.05 Quota of 1st preferences, it gets 2 Senators immediately and so it is very likely that their remaining candidates, #3-6, will be eliminated before the voter’s #1 to #5 preferences are eliminated. So when the voter’s first 5 preferences are eliminated, their vote has nowhere to go, so it exhausts having achieved absolutely nothing.
  • John Henry
    commented 2022-02-21 16:15:37 +1100
    If you are unsure about who to vote for, you should not vote at all. Choosing for some default, without thinking it through, is as worse as a donkey vote. As I am convinced that most voters have no conviction for one party or the other – and are only voting because they would otherwise be fined – we will always end up with donkey governments. We should have the right not to vote. The number of voters that have clearly not voted is a meaningful political statement that is currently immeasurable. So, absolutely NO to compulsory voting.
  • Peter Newland
    commented 2022-02-14 09:43:28 +1100
    If regional Australia, especially ‘the bush’ (more remote regions) feel, and are IMO, less represented now, then to reduce that representation will make it worse. Australia’s population density is very low, and so comparisons with Europe do not always apply. Our density (with literal pun-intended meaning) is such that we seem unreasonably slow to “populated or perish”.

    The federal state system would be very difficult to change because constitutional amendments rarely succeed. But, regardless of that, I favour retaining the State system with its intended stabilising role. So I favour believe compulsory voting: and, to make it more effective, we need electoral reform to ensure that we, collectively the voters, get what we actually voted for rather than the current system where about 1 in 12 Senators are elected more by the flaws in the voting system rather than by the collective preferences of the voters. But that is covered in the “A fair Voting System” page on this site.
  • John Henry
    commented 2022-02-14 09:12:23 +1100
    You have a point about regional Australia. I agree that they will feel less represented. But that is already the case. The simple mathematical fairness and transparency of the popular vote beats geographical representation – in my opinion, and in my experience. I am a dual citizen and exercise my right to vote in Australia, in the Netherlands, and in the EU.
  • Peter Newland
    commented 2022-02-13 21:03:52 +1100
    While a single electorate for Australia may be the fairest way of getting proportional representation and honouring the popular vote, is that, alone, actually best for Australia? How exactly do citizens get an MP to represent their needs or grievances if our ‘Representatives’ represent no one in particular? It seems there’s no ideal system.

    Whether one big electorate is best for the lower house or not, I think we need to keep the Federal Senate because what’s best for the high-population-density capital city voters may be foolishness for sparsely populated States and ares.
  • John Henry
    commented 2022-02-13 18:39:56 +1100
    In answer to Peter.
    In a proportional representation system, the seats are handed out in proportion to the number of votes counted. The seats are just seats in parliament – not geographic locations. There is no Honourable Member from the seat of Woop-Woop – there is just an Honourable Member who sits in parliament.
    This system is much more transparent. This is the popular vote! The division of the seats is determined by proportion of the votes. There is only one electorate – the whole of Australia in a federal election, the whole of the state in a state election. Any vote is exactly equal to any other vote. This is by far a fairer system.

    It makes no difference if voting is compulsory or not. In my humble opinion – it is our duty to vote, but we should also have the right not to vote – especially when my vote is not counted equally to everyone else’s.

    In countries that use proportional representation, there is often a problem with the distribution of the very last seats. There are formulas to fix this and there is always room for negotiation. Countries using proportional representation often have multiple parties and are forced to form coalition governments. But this leads to a continuity of policies, achievable long-term projects, and not the build-up – tear-down pattern we have with each change of government in Australia.
  • Peter Newland
    commented 2022-02-13 16:04:51 +1100
    Why vote at all?
    On the Fair Voting page John, you rightly say that a Party can get the majority of votes but a minority of seats and not be able to govern despite winning the popular vote. Who would know that if voting was optional?

    Compulsory voting at least gives the main opposition party facts to argue for their policies claiming a popular support, and also to argue that electoral boundaries need redistribution – or to argue for your proportional system.

    Proportional systems have their problems also. If three parties tie with 33 1/3% each, and there are 4 seats, who gets the 4th seat? There is no solution to this issue: someone wins and someone loses. The problem is much less if there are a large number of seats per electorate, which is what your proportional system probably implies. Further, who wins the last seat in proportional electorate elections tends to be partly a lottery because of the flaws inherent in our vote counting system. These flaws are magnified and increasingly chaotic in Hare Clark style elections (e.g., as in Australian Senate and The Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania etc). Even in Lower house seats the counting-system flaws can elect a candidate despite preferences proving that an candidate who was eliminated would have won a 1-on-1 runoff election against the alleged winner. This effect is MUCH worse in proportional representative elections and gets worse as there are more representatives per electorate and as elections are closer. That problem can not be fixed unless we have real electoral reform and adopt the only fair methods of vote-counting. See the fair voting page for discussion on this.

    Donkey votes can be countered by Robson Rotation whereby the order of voters on ballot papers are rotated such that each candidate gets to be at the top of the same number of blank ballot papers. However, that makes it extremely difficult to produce simple How To Vote recommendation cards. That could be overcome if the Electoral Commissions actually taught people how to get best value from their votes and if Parties actually published their recommendations re voting to number every box.
  • John Henry
    commented 2022-02-13 10:56:44 +1100
    The seats determine government. If there is a clear winner in your seat, i.e. someone has more that 50% of the first preference votes, but you did not vote for this person, your vote becomes worthless. If you know your vote is going to be thrown away – because where you live the majority always goes to the same party – i.e. not yours – then why vote at all. This is because we have a geographic representation system instead of the fairer proportional representation system. As an extra insult to voters – voting is compulsory. We will never know who got elected by donkey votes. We cannot measure real engagement, i.e. how many voters voted compared to the total number of voters.


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