29 October 2014: Voting and democracy

Politicians screwing voters is – and always has been – par for the course in democracies. A particularly obnoxious and racist attempt at blindsiding a huge chunk of citizens took place in the US this month.

As reported in The Guardian and The New York Times, a recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States allows Texas to impose strict ID conditions on voters. The move may effectively disenfranchise an estimated 600,000 registered voters in the upcoming 4 November midterm elections. Overwhelmingly those disenfranchised will be poor African Americans and Latinos. It is seen by many as an attempt by the Republicans to reduce the growing electoral power of minorities in Texas, minorities who traditionally vote Democrat.

Republicans argue the new measures were introduced to combat voter fraud. However, as the story in The Guardian points out, only two cases of fraud out of 20 million votes have been brought to conviction in the past 10 years.

I would like to think that this kind of political bastardry could never happen in Australia, not from any hope that Australian politicians are more virtuous than their American counterparts, but because voting in Australia is compulsory. I suspect voter fraud is potentially easier to hide when only 63% of the population turns out to vote (as it did when Obama was elected president in 2008), as opposed to the 93% that turned out in the 2013 Australian federal election.

More importantly, although compulsory voting doesn’t stop political parties from damaging their opponents through other tried and trusted means, when voting is mandated by law it’s harder for governments to put up hurdles.

The main point I want to make about compulsory voting is that it is the best expression of the idea that, in a democracy, voting is a responsibility and not a right. This was recognised from the very start of democracy, in ancient Athens, when citizens who could vote at assemblies were believed to have the duty to do so.

At its heart, democracy guarantees no rights at all. The only thing democracy guarantees is the equal distribution of political responsibility among enfranchised citizens: one person, one vote. Democracy does not tell us who can or cannot be a citizen, or who can or cannot be enfranchised. Democracy does not guarantee freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. Democracy does not guarantee equality before the law.

Voters in a democracy can certainly bestow any or all of those rights on citizens (and, indeed, non-citizens). Just as certainly voters in a democracy can diminish, curtail or repeal those rights.

High voting turnout for elections makes democracy more representative and therefore more stable. Whether it is the law or political engagement that gets the voter to the ballot box, a strong democracy is more likely to serve all the citizens rather than a select few.

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