No-Shows: Why do people abstain from voting in Australia?
by Jarni Blakkarly

In the third episode of Housekeeping – the Wheeler Centre’s five-part mini-series of short podcast features on Australian democracy – Jarni Blakkarly investigates why some Australian citizens abstain from voting … and finds some dramatically different reasons.

When it comes to voting in Australia, you have two options: show up and vote, or pay a fine. The fines start at $20 – but if you have to go to court, it could turn into a $180 fine.

There are a number of reasons why people argue that compulsory voting is good for democracy. The threat of a fine reminds the forgetful, motivates the unmotivated and ensures that everyone comes out to have a say in the direction of their state or country.

Plus, it’s true that in countries like the US – where voting isn’t compulsory – it’s mostly poor people and racial minorities who don’t end up casting votes.

However, there are some people in Australia who just don’t vote. Of course, there are those who forget to register or don’t bother showing up, but there are also those who don’t vote out of principle. And of those people, some have gone to extraordinary lengths to defend their right not to cast a ballot.

Michael Mansell, 64, is a lawyer and the secretary of the Aboriginal Provisional Government in Tasmania. He remembers voting in elections as a young man, but says he began to rethink the practice in his mid-twenties.

‘I did vote when I became 18,’ he says. ‘I think from memory I probably voted into my early twenties, before I started talking to Aboriginal people about sovereignty and our nationhood.’

These days, Mansell is a well-known Indigenous sovereignty activist and a staunch defender of Indigenous people’s right to be exempt from compulsory voting.

I … probably voted into my early twenties, before I started talking to Aboriginal people about sovereignty and our nationhood.’

‘It was only in the early 1960s that Aboriginal people all around the country had the right to vote,’ he points out. ‘But then the question is: does the rightto vote for people who are of a different nation, mean they have to vote? Or should it be the case that the Australian Government should give people from another nation the option of whether they would like to vote?’

Around 30 years ago, Mansell became outraged that Indigenous people were being fined for not voting. He wanted to challenge the law. He made it very public that he didn’t vote himself and was duly charged. He took the case to court, arguing that Australia’s compulsory voting laws didn’t apply to Aboriginal people … and he lost.

The magistrate said that if he didn’t pay the $25 fine, he’d face a short stint in prison. But Mansell was adamant; he wasn’t going to pay. He was ready to go to jail. But then a strange thing happened.

‘Some wag, who was not a supporter, and who didn’t agree with the debate, went and paid the fine for me,’ Mansell laughs. ‘I don’t know who the person was but [they] said they didn’t want me to get any more publicity on the point. Since then I have never voted and I’ve never been prosecuted.’

In Mansell’s opinion, Indigenous claims to sovereignty are made weaker if Aboriginal people are forced to vote by the Australian Government.

‘If you genuinely believe that you are part of an Aboriginal Nation, and you genuinely believe that we are being treated badly – and if, by negotiating and by consulting [with the Australian Government] nothing happens – then sometimes you’ve got to go to extremes,’ he argues. For Mansell, this means protesting inside and outside the courts and, if necessary, going to jail as a result.  ‘At least then you can say you stood on your principles,’ he says.

Mansell is frustrated that many Aboriginal people don’t hear the counter-arguments; they’re not encouraged to question compulsory voting. Ultimately, that’s true for everyone. The option of not voting isn’t really discussed, because legally, it isn’t an option. Case in point: as a journalist preparing this report, I’ve had to be careful with my words because it’s even illegal to encourage other people not to vote.

While in the past, people may have chosen not to enrol in the first place, to avoid being fined, new laws mean that the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) can now automatically enrol citizens. They don’t even have to ask; they can use information you have provided to other government agencies like Centrelink or Medicare.

Richard, 24, is another abstainer, though he doesn’t want to give his full name. For Richard, abstaining isn’t a political gesture. In fact, that’s exactly the kind of thing he’s specifically trying to avoid. He’s never been enrolled to vote, meaning he’s one of the hundreds of thousands of young people missing from the electoral roll. But it’s not that Richard’s politically disillusioned, or even that he’s lazy. Richard’s rationale relates to his line of work. He is an economist and he’s often contracted to do economic modelling on state and federal government policies. That, he says, is why he doesn’t vote.For the first election after he turned 18, Richard simply forgot to enrol. But it was the election time behaviour of his economics classmates at uni that made him think more seriously about voting. Specifically, he says, it was the way they became biased in their own approaches to economics and writing policy.‘It was interesting watching how people’s perceptions of their policy, how it changed after they voted,’ he explains. ‘They became biased towards their own voting perspectives … If you are trying to write policy, you’re meant to be as unbiased as possible, so it ends up skewing what you are doing.’While economics may be a field that’s bound up in politics, surely abstaining from voting doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions – or that we don’t want to be right. Whether they vote or not, economists are people like the rest of us – with opinions and biases. So why not vote?‘Once you pick the horse to back, you end up trying to prove that you’re right, that you picked the right horse, and that’s bias which we are concerned [about],’ he says. ‘When you have Australia and England playing cricket against each other you always have India’s or Sri Lanka’s or some other country’s referees because they don’t have the bias. Same thing happens in tennis, same thing happens in football. It happens everywhere.’To be clear, though, Richard doesn’t abstain from all forms of voting. He voted at his student union’s election. It’s only state and federal elections that directly concern his job. So, does he believe in absolute objectivity?‘I think it is very hard to get to, but I do try my best,’ he laughs. ‘It’s not possible but I do put my best effort in.’

Joe Toscano is another person who doesn’t vote. Joe is an anarchist, although one thing that really annoys him is the traditional anarchist philosophy of trying to bring down systems of government from the outside.

‘Totally unrealistic, 100 percent unrealistic,’ he says. ‘You look at the meaning,anar-chos, it means without rulers. That’s the only thing anarchists have in common: creating a society without rulers. That’s all we have in common.’

We have a 21st-century society… using a 19th-century system of democracy’

Toscano believes in democracy – just not parliamentary democracy. Instead, he’s a believer in direct democracy. He wants citizens to be able to initiate their own referendums. He wants politicians to be able to be recalled between elections if their constituents aren’t happy. He wants more engagement, not less.

‘We have a 21st-century society with 21st-century needs and 21st-century desires and expectations, using a 19th-century system of democracy,’ he says.

Toscano doesn’t vote himself – but, to highlight what he says are the inadequacies of our democracy – he runs in elections. A lot of them. He’s stood as a candidate at every state and federal election since 1988. He says he wants people who do vote to have a chance to vote for systematic reform.

Ballot box illustration

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

At the last federal election, Toscano received 1600 votes in the Senate – half of 0.1% percent of the vote. But Toscano says it’s not about the number of votes he gets, because it’s not about winning. It’s about giving people a choice. He doesn’t even vote for himself. At the moment, he is in the middle of a long court battle against the AEC, in a bid to have compulsory voting ruled unconstitutional. Toscano believes compulsory voting hides the fact that most people are disengaged from politics.

‘If you remove compulsory voting and less than 50% of people vote, then you have a real problem of legitimacy for the government of the day,’ he says. ‘And the fewer people who vote, the greater the problem and the greater the push for reform.’

Toscano acknowledges that without compulsory voting, engagement might go down. On the other hand, though, he argues that an alternative would make people think more about what kind of system they genuinely wanted to engage with.

It’s a little bit like being at school, Toscano says.

‘The teacher says “You must do this homework or you will get detention”. You will do the homework once to avoid detention, but you are not going to retain anything you did.’