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What the US Could Learn from Australia on Voting

When I was 18 and living in Australia, I enrolled to vote in my very first election. It was easy. I received a letter from the electoral commission wishing me a happy 18th birthday and informing me that it was now time to join my fellow Australians in performing my democratic duty—to vote—and instructing me as to how I would enroll.

The first time I voted was in a state election and my mom and I went to a polling place at a local elementary school together. It was a Saturday morning and we waited in a short line while she gently tried to convince me not to vote Greens but to be loyal to the Labor Party who would always be the major progressive force in Australian politics, in her opinion.

Inside the school, an electoral officer asked for my name, address, and “have you voted anywhere else today?” After answering no, I had not committed voter fraud, she marked my name off in a ledger. I took my ballot papers to a booth, voted and left, reporting to a disappointed mother on the way out, that I had indeed voted Greens.

And that was it. Easy. I don’t have a traumatic, the-system-doesn’t-work story about enrolling to vote or casting my first ballot in Australia. My experience is the norm, not the exception, and is the direct result of our compulsory voting system.

Voter turnout in Australia is consistently between 93 and 95 percent.

Recently, President Obama mentioned Australia’s voting laws, commenting that “it would be transformative if everybody voted." Many commentators and elected officials jumped on his remarks, criticising him for posing an idea that would essentially mean forcing people to vote, denying them the right to choose not to participate in the political process.  

These critiques miss an important point. No one forced me to vote in Australia. Our system does give people the option not to vote. In reality, the law requires you to turn out to the polls and have your name checked off on the electoral role. Then, you may do with your ballot what you wish—throw it away, scrawl obscenities on it, whatever you desire. Some people choose to do this, but the vast majority choose to vote.

Thanks to our system, the act of voting is something that everyone shares, it’s part of our civic lives, and it’s part of what it means to be Australian. It would not be the worst thing if Americans came to see voting in the same way.

There’s also more to debating the idea of universal voting in America than the implications of “mandatory.” Part of the conversation has to be about access to voting. In Australia, the law mandating people vote is just one part of the system that sees such high turnout. The rest of the system is all about making it as easy as possible for people to vote. Right now, with the right to vote being attacked in states across the country, this could not be further from a reality in the US.

Imagining a universal voting system in America, means also imagining nothing less than the transformation of the way elections are run.

Universal voting means election day cannot be a Tuesday (in Australia elections are always held on a Saturday). It means that questions about the benefits of Same-Day Registration and early voting periods disappear—they would be essential elements to a universal voting system and would have to be applied on a national level. It means enough polling places with enough staff so that there aren’t long lines, period. It means a strong, independent federal commission overseeing elections and sending young people enrollment information on their 18th birthdays.

Don’t dismiss universal voting because it sounds hard. The alternative is accepting the broken system that we have now.

At best, 60 percent of Americans decide who should be President and midterm turnout hovers consistently around 40 percent. This gap matters because the people voting and the issues that they care about are not representative of the American electorate as whole. As a group, voters are wealthier, older, and whiter, and this unrepresentative slice of eligible voters has disproportionate power and influence because of low voter turnout.

Elections, especially midterms, are battles over who can turn more of a party’s base, fought along narrow, divisive issues appealing to the extreme flank of the party. Newly elected majorities who win in this system, as we saw after last year’s midterms, claim to have a sweeping mandate to pursue policies that, in reality, few people voted for at all.

Imagine, instead, politicians and governments were held accountable by all of the electorate. That’s not such a radical idea.