Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Three reasons why the rest of the world ought to be more like Australia

Jingoistic as it may seem, I really do think that Australia gets many things right when it comes to elections. Having observed the two-year circus of the US elections and had various discussions with a range of international students about their home systems, I think there are at least three slightly unusual elements to the Australian system that are worth preserving (and imitating!):

1. An independent electoral commission
In some countries (most notably the US), electoral boundaries are determined by the government, or a government-appointed board, leading to a phenomenon known as "Gerrymandering", in which electoral boundaries are manipulated for political advantage.

2. Compulsory voting
Jury duty is compulsory, though in certain extenuating circumstances, one may be excused. Voting, as another exercise in civic deliberation, ought to be the same. Compulsory voting removes the huge efforts both sides have to go to in order to "get out the vote" and so frees up more energy for discussion of the issues, since there are not two choices ("Should I vote?"; "For whom should I vote?") but only the latter. Non-compulsory voting disadvantages those with least power over their work situation and can lead to a self-fulfilling feeling of disenfranchisement and political apathy. This is magnified through weekday elections. Australia's elections seem to always happen on a Saturday, which to my mind, makes much more sense.

3. Preferential voting
While people I discuss these issues with are generally hesitant about compulsory voting (until the benefits are explained) and sometimes sceptical about the neutrality of any electoral commission, I am yet to meet someone who is not in favour of preferential voting once it has been explained to them. For those unfamiliar with it, preferential voting means that rather than simply selecting one candidate or party as the recipient of your vote, you are able (or even obliged, in Australian Federal elections, though I think this is a mistake) to rank the candidates according to your preference. When counting votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his/her votes are redistributed on the basis of their second preferences. This process is repeated (using third, fourth, etc preferences if necessary) until one candidate has a majority. This has the enormous advantage of avoiding the "Ralph Nader" effect, in which a third-party candidate splits the vote of a major party candidate, who ends up losing, even though a majority of the population might have preferred him to the winning candidate. With preferential voting, it is possible to vote for a minor candidate without thereby "wasting" your vote. When combined with compulsory voting, it also ensures that the eventual winner will have been preferred by an absolute majority of eligible voters in the electorate over any other candidate. The only drawback to my mind is that this system is a little more complex and may confuse some voters. I understand that Canada recently tried to introduce preferential voting but the reform was rejected due to fear of it becoming too complex to understand.
UPDATE: Neil has kindly given a further explanation and defence of my three claims. Thanks!


Mark said...

And we don't have the time, energy and money-sapping pre-election election process that is the presidential primaries.

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

It's true that if the US had a preferential voting system then Gore would probably have won the 2000 election by getting the votes of Nader.

However, it is also true that George HW Bush would've won the 1992 election because he would've gotten the votes cast for Ross Perot.

So it cuts both ways - for Dems and Repubs.

Jonathan said...

Good points. The claim that "preferential voting ... ensures that the eventual winner will have been preferred by an absolute majority of ... voters ... over any other candidate" is not strictly true, but it works most of the time. The notion fairly common in the UK of having to guess how to vote most effectively is annoying.

Some other thoughts - Saturday voting is great, as are the traditions like P&C sausage sizzles that go with it (and no schools have to close for an extra day!). But the UK deals with Thursday elections by having the polls open till some time like 10pm. Given the changing nature of work hours, perhaps we should consider that even on a Saturday.

Matheson said...

Most people I have spoken to about compulsory voting defend what they already do (don't we all?) with one of two truly ridiculous arguments: (1) it's an infringement of civil liberties to compel voting, or (2) why would you want to count the opinion of those so apathetic they can't get themselves to the polls?

But I can't help thinking that there must be better arguments out there for non-compulsory voting and that I just haven't come across them. At very least there must be some historical reason why it was decided that voting ought not to be compelled in all these countries...


Unknown said...

In many states of the US (including my own) you can vote up to two weeks prior to the official election day. This is how my wife and I voted this year and I prefer it to voting any single day of the week, Saturday or not. It provides the most opportunity for all people to vote.

Unknown said...

Perhaps there are better reasons for a non- compulsory system but it seems to me that the philosophic underpinnings of our government and its current practice are rooted in a racist and sexist past where indians, blacks and women were not considered equal and could not vote. Inequality is thus built into the American ethos and, accordingly, the idea that all should vote would be antithetical to the States best interests The primary understanding is that the apathetic and uneducated should leave government to others who know better.

Anonymous said...

In South Africa, my wife reliably informs me, they have national elections on a weekday but it's a public holiday. Why haven't Australians spotted this opportunity?

I doubt that an electoral commission would stay independent in the USA. The democratic system there seems to have produced a partisan culture even for things like school boards and courts.

Anonymous said...

Byron - interesting comments!

I presume you are aware that in your adopted country (the best small country in the world) we adopted preferential voting at the last election for the local council elections. We called it STV (single transferable vote)....it was a farse (to say the least). To begin with it was held on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections, which were first past the post; secondly, no-one knew what do do on which ballot paper.

Re compulsory voting, I once had the debate with someone who said that it took away your ability to choose (!?)... but there is always the option to spoil the ballot paper.


PS- re compulsory jury service - I recieved a citation last week for 2 days before my PhD viva - fortunatly I have been excused (for now) and will be called again in the next 12 months.

Donna said...

Seriously - preferential voting was rejected in Canada because it was too complicated??? Don't you just put a "1" next your most preferred candidate, "2" next to the 2nd preferred... How about I go and explain it to Canada.

In our international (though largely American) organisation, we vote each few years for our director and other positions. Before an Aussie suggested preferential voting we needed to actually re-do the votes lots of times to get a majority of votes for one person. Preferential voting made it MUCH simpler. People understood fairly quickly how to vote, but it took a bit of effort to explain how to count the votes.

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

In South Africa, my wife reliably informs me, they have national elections on a weekday but it's a public holiday. Why haven't Australians spotted this opportunity?

Election days are always on Saturdays here in Oz. No point in having a public holiday if it's on a weekend - what a waste!

Sean said...

In response to matheson: to be fair, Australia is far less concerned with rights than America- rights are fundamental for the U.S. Constitution, but only very indirectly implied by the Australian Constitution. Which for Australia, as Byron's noted, has its big advantages, but it's also had disastrous effects in allowing Howard's government to annihilate Native Title because there's no constitutional protection against doing so.

And Byron- don't forget, disenfranchisement in the U.S. can be permanent for offenders who have committed severe enough crimes- even decades and decades after release from imprisonment... (See Richardson v Ramirez)

Anonymous said...

Election days are always on Saturdays here in Oz. No point in having a public holiday if it's on a weekend - what a waste!

Precisely my point. This is a golden opportunity for us to have another public holiday.

And if it was most other excuses for a public holiday, just having it on the Saturday would be enough for us to take the Friday off (and chuck a sickie on Thursday, not that I'm condoning that).

Anonymous said...

The reason John McCain picked his running mate (a gal who'd 'energise the base') would evaporate if 'the base' (a) had to get out and vote anyway, and (b) were always going to rank him ahead of that Osama guy. McCain wouldn't have to be very Republican.

For anyone who thought there were better VP candidates than Sarah Palin, (a) argues for making voting compulsory, and (b) argues for counting preferences.

Mike W said...

We do indeed have the toast of the world when it comes to electoral systems. The cherry on top would be implementing Fred Nile's call to ban donations to any political party.
I mean really. A billion dollars to elect the obvious choice? If we limited the amount of money spent on elections, we would at least find the politician who could spend their money most frugally.

byron smith said...

I seem to have struck something of a nerve with this post, although it seems almost exclusively an Australian one! When will the rest of the world recognise how brilliant we are? [*Sigh*]

Jonathan said...

Some have argued that the alternative to campaigns aimed at making people vote is campaigns which can afford to ignore the party's base, focussing on the swining voters and leading to the Tweedledee-dum effect. But that happens in countries where voting isn't compulsory as well.

As for timing, I'm with Alan!

Anonymous said...

I have an idea for how to explain preferential voting to countries who find it hard to understand:

It's just like Australian/American/Canadian Idol. You knock one person out each round till you're left with just 2...

but you do it all on one form instead of dragging it out for 12 weeks.

byron smith said...


Anonymous said...

Hi Byron

I keep pointing people back to this post amidst all the calls for informal votes this year!

Now, Ted Mack has just written this scathing piece against the whole Australian electoral system... :|


byron smith said...

As it happens, I agree with most of what Ted Mack says. It's just that I'm also familiar with some of the alternatives (at least in the UK and US), which are worse.