Compulsory voting isn’t a solution

A lot has been said about getting more people to vote, especially younger people. Campaigns to get more people enrolled and voting have not achieved much.

Usually it seems that political activists and commentators who are pushing for more voting think that it will get different results – the results they want.

It’s hard to argue with the decisions of those who vote (although it’s not uncommon to see people who don’t like election outcomes to accuse those who voted differently to their preference of being stupid or ill-informed).

While it’s unknown what the preference of non-voters is but some seem to assume that  they must think like them (except about the importance of voting) and if they can be forced to vote it will give them the result they want.

Lizzie Marvelly writes: Why voting shouldn’t be a matter of choice

Trends from the last few elections have shown a dwindling number of people voting in younger age groups, and they’re not suddenly voting when they get older.

Voting is habitual behaviour, and if you don’t get into the habit when you’re young, it’s statistically very unlikely you’ll hit 40 and suddenly develop a hankering to skip down to the ballot box.

That’s wrong, according to the 2014 election turnout statistics.

Age range Voters Non-voters Non-voters Total enrolled
18 – 24 212,204 126,065 37.27% 338,269
25 – 29 152,409 92,967 37.89% 245,376
30 – 34 169,899 82,190 32.60% 252,089
35 – 39 187,856 70,302 27.23% 258,158
40 – 44 226,110 70,534 23.78% 296,644
45 – 49 234,758 64,065 21.44% 298,823
50 – 54 248,257 59,117 19.23% 307,374
55 – 59 226,927 45,589 16.73% 272,516
60 – 64 204,604 33,377 14.03% 237,981
65 – 69 185,803 25,198 11.94% 211,001
70+ 362,030 60,156 14.25% 422,186
Total 2,410,857 729,560 23.23% 3,140,417

It’s possible that non-voters predominantly die young, but this suggests strongly that a significant number of people start voting as they get older.

Though the breakdown of voter demographics in this election hasn’t yet been released, it’s unlikely it will reveal any evidence of a significant and lasting reversal in our dismal youth voting statistics.

Enrolment statistics for this year show that by mid to late 30s about 97% of people are enrolled.

As such, it’s time to start thinking about future-proofing our democratic tradition.

As I’m no stranger to controversy, I’m just going to come out and say it. I think it’s time that we talked about compulsory voting.

It’s not controversial, as Marvelly later shows.

Former Prime Ministers Jim Bolger, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore have all supported the idea of New Zealand following Australia’s lead and introducing compulsory voting, and indeed, more than 20 other countries around the world also have compulsory voting systems.

Compulsory voting has often been suggested as a solution to a problem that we may not have. Many more than 20 countries manage without making voting compulsory.

To me, voting is not simply a right, but a responsibility. If we enjoy the privilege of living in New Zealand, it is our responsibility as citizens to make sure that our nation is governed by the parties that truly represent the will of the people.

If course a democracy needs a significant number of people to vote. But if the will of some people is not to care about who governs the country, if the will of some people is not to vote, then forcing them to vote is forcing them to do something against their will.

Only 78 per cent of eligible voters had a say this year. That’s nearly a quarter of us who had no input into the team that will lead our country for the next three years. That’s not good enough.

Why isn’t it good enough? If people choose not to have any input what’s wrong with that?

Voting is one of the few things Australia does better than we do, and that really bugs me.

While their voting is ‘compulsory’ their voting rates dropped to a nearly 100 year low of 91% in last year’s election – actually a low since voting was made compulsory in 1925.

I think the quality of governments voted for by Australians over the past decade bugs more people. Voter turnout doesn’t matter if quality of options is poor.

I’m not saying that I think people should be forced to cast a vote for the sake of it if they don’t feel that they can support any of the parties or the candidates — voters should always have the option to “spoil” their votes.

I think there’s a good case for a ‘non of the above’ option, simply spoiling a voting paper doesn’t count in any meaningful way.

Another important step we should take to safeguard the future of our democratic society is one I’ve written about before. I’m a strong supporter of lowering the voting age to 16 and implementing civics education in our curriculum.

That is controversial, both lowering the voting age, and having civics education in our curriculum. Education young people about our system of democracy and government is worthwhile, but it would have to be done impartially, if that was possible in schools.

If young Kiwis formed the voting habit while still at school, we’d likely see our youth turnout statistics rise almost immediately.

Maybe, maybe not. The younger voters are the lower the turnout, so going younger still may reduce the % turnout.

Also, when faced with a whole new demographic of voters, politicians would finally have to take young people’s concerns seriously.

That may be the crux of Marvelly’s argument – she wants her concerns taken more seriously and thinks that young non-voters will share her concerns. Young people who don’t vote may have different concerns.

But if voting is made compulsory more older people will vote, quite possibly more than younger people. It could backfire on Marvelly having her concerns addressed.

I would theorise that the impact on environmental policy would be particularly profound, as politicians who will be dead when the worst ravages of climate change sweep the planet would be forced to do more than pay lip service to tokenistic environmental policy — or face the consequences on election day.

But young people in particular are notorious for not thinking about the future. Making them vote won’t make them consider what state the world might be in for their grandchildren.

Marvelly seems to think like many disappointed with election results – that non-voters will share their concerns. I’m not aware of this being based on any research at all.

Whatever the methods, it’s time that we created a culture in which voting was an expectation for all, rather than an exercise in self-selection. The voices of the missing 22 per cent are just as important as those of the people who showed up to the ballot box, and it should concern us all that they’re not being heard.

That statement is highly debatable. It doesn’t concern me that many people don’t vote, either by choice or by slackness or by disinterest.

It seems that what Marvelly really wants is her concerns heard, and instead of encouraging more people to share her concerns and vote accordingly she thinks that compulsory voting will do the job for her.

And as for those who argue that compulsory voting might skew the vote one way or another (which is an illogical argument given it would essentially involve bemoaning a truer representation of our society than our currently older-skewed voting population), Australia’s pendulum swinging political landscape suggests the will of the people can go either way, no matter how many people vote.

Marvelly argued that she wants voting skewed more towards her own concerns, by compulsion.

Because that’s what democracy is really about. The people. Nga tangata. Not Winston. Not just the 78 per cent who voted.

All of us.

Actually 78% only applies to enrolled voters, about another 8% choose not to even enrol, or just don’t get around to it.

Is democracy really about making people do something they don’t want to do or don’t care about doing? I think people should have a right not to vote if that’s what they choose.

If Marvelly wants more young people to vote she should find out what appeals to them.

Making things compulsory for young people often has non-intended consequences. They tend to not like being forced to do something they don’t care about.

As far as democracy goes making voting compulsory seems to be trying to fix a problem we don’t have. It is more like individuals trying to force results they aren’t getting by democratic means.

Compulsory voting and brussel sprouts

Making something compulsory because many people don’t like doing it is a daft approach with anything, and especially with democracy.

Hardly anyone likes brussel sprouts but that’s no good reason to make eating them compulsory.

Voting should be a choice and not forced by the State.

Guyon Espiner/RNZ has just done a length interview with ex Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer – see The Reformer – Geoffrey Palmer: Prime Minister 1989-90

Picking up on something from this NZ Herald reports:

New Zealand should adopt Australian rules and make it illegal not to vote, former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer says.

Palmer…told Radio NZ’s Guyon Espiner that voter apathy had led to Trumpery and Brexit.

“Democratic government around the western world is in some sort of crisis,” Palmer said.

“Look at the level of voting in the 2016 New Zealand municipal elections – hardly anyone votes. And yet we’ve got a supercity in Auckland with enormous powers – why would they not vote?

“It’s quite hard to understand. Are they turned off by it? Do they think it doesn’t matter?”

Voting in both local government and parliamentary elections should be enforced, Palmer said.

It’s not hard to understand why many voters might be turned off voting for politicians if people like Palmer try to force them to vote.

There’s a number of things wrong with what Palmer says in this one short article excerpt.

“voter apathy had led to Trumpery and Brexit”

That was in the US and UK, both very different situations to New Zealand.

If Australia, Indonesia and Fiji dictated laws and regulations in New Zealand I think there would be a lot of objections to ‘union’, as there have been in the UK.

If we had an election choice like Trump versus Hillary Clinton there would be voter despair here too.

Voter apathy is because politicians and politics don’t appeal to a lot of people – especially when they try to force things on you like compulsory voting.

“Democratic government around the western world is in some sort of crisis”

“Around the Western world” and “crisis” are both exaggerations, possibly massive exaggerations.

And I see little if any sign of crisis in democracy in New Zealand. It would be ridiculous trying to force Kiwis to vote because Aussies have had a high turnover of Governments – and ironically voting is compulsory in Australia.

“Look at the level of voting in the 2016 New Zealand municipal elections – hardly anyone votes.

Many people did not vote, but many people did vote. There are a number of reasons for low turnout in local body elections.

Most people find local body politics uninteresting. Most people know little or nothing about most candidates. Local body ballot papers are bulky and confusing.

And yet we’ve got a supercity in Auckland with enormous powers – why would they not vote?

In last year’s local body elections the two largest mayoralty contests were foregone conclusions so there was little to inspire voters.

In Auckland Phil Goff was chosen by media to be mayor months before the election, and he has weak opponents.

In Christchurch Lianne Dalzeil had two opponents, John Minto who had moved down from Auckland to try to start a socialist revolution, and another guy who stands a lot and campaigns very little.

“It’s quite hard to understand. Are they turned off by it?”

It’s not hard to understand at all. Yes, many people are turned off by politicians and ex politicians who are totally out of touch with ordinary people’s lives and who try to force them to do things they don’t want to do.

“Do they think it doesn’t matter?”

Many people do think that their voting doesn’t matter, that it wouldn’t change anything much for them. And that it doesn’t matter which of National or Labour leads the Government.

“Voting in both local government and parliamentary elections should be enforced”.

Hardly anyone likes brussel sprouts but that’s no good reason to make their consumption compulsory.

Palmer could try forcing people to vote, and while they are at the booth force them to eat some veges, but I don’t think that would go down very well.


If politicians want more people to vote for them they should earn support, not try to force it.

If disinterested uninformed are forced to vote we are likely to get an uninformed result – or silly results due to protest voters.

Australia’s compulsory voting is in part they reason they have fringe parties who sometimes hold the balance of power, see The rise of `fringe’ parties.

Certainly attempts should be made to inform people more and encourage them to vote, starting with civics education in schools.

But if people don’t want to vote, and if people don’t want to be informed, then they should not be forced to vote.

We are better pushing for quality votes, not quantity votes.

And if we get better quality parties and candidates then more people might be inclined to vote.

However there is one problem with modern democracy in New Zealand.

Under MMP we have tended to have steady stable predictable governments that don’t  swing and knee jerk wildly.

Good government should mainly mean quietly administering the country in the background, helping where necessary but not interfering in people’s lives.

A good government will be largely anonymous. Politics shouldn’t be a lolly scramble vote bribing disruptive imposer of unnecessary laws and regulations.

If that means less people are interested in voting then so be it.

As long as we are all able to vote if we choose then I don’t see what the problem with falling turnout is.

Palmer seems to be looking to regulate to solve a problem that doesn’t really need fixing – and certainly shouldn’t be fixed by force.

Many people see politicians as the see brussel sprouts – distasetful.

Perhaps politicians should try offering a better flavour.