The flag of Australia.
CC0 Public Domain.

January 13, 2020; The Conversation

In the United States, as we have widely covered at NPQ, efforts to restrict voter participation are widespread, including voter ID laws and, as in Georgia, attempts to “scrub” voter registration lists—for instance, by deleting voters from the rolls whose last names were missing hyphens. But what if a voting system were organized to encourage, rather than discourage, voter participation? Making voting easy isn’t so complicated if the political will to do so is mobilized.

University of Memphis law professor Steven Mulroy, having studied Australian election law, identifies a number of practices that could enhance voter participation in the US. Among them:

  • Compulsory voting: Famously, in Australia, compulsory voting has existed since 1924. As Mulroy details, all Australians of voting age must register to vote and cast a ballot. (A blank ballot can be cast as a protest vote.) Not voting carries a small fine (AU$20, or about US$14). That’s not exactly a major penalty, but does result in routine turnout of over 90 percent.
  • Allow votes by mail or in-person: In Australia, “all voters can cast their ballots by mail, vote in person ahead of Election Day, or show up to the polls on Election Day itself,” Mulroy notes. Moreover, voting is on a Saturday, which means fewer people need to request time off from work to vote than is the case in the US, with our norm of Tuesday elections.
  • Use ranked-choice voting to prevent “wasted votes”: Since 1918, Australia has used “preferential voting,” a form of ranked-choice voting. In a ranked choice voting system, as Mulroy points out, “If no one wins a majority of the votes cast, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and their supporters’ votes are redistributed according to these voters’ second choices. This process of eliminating candidates and redistributing those candidates’ supporters continues until one candidate has a majority.” Some US jurisdictions, like Maine, have implemented ranked-choice voting already.
  • District lines set by federal commission: Unlike the United States, where in most jurisdictions legislators draw their own district lines, in Australia, election districts are drawn by the Australian Electoral Commission. It’s not a perfect system, but it does avoid the gross gerrymandering common in so many US states.
  • Proportional representation in the Senate: Since 1949, the upper house, or Senate, has been elected by proportional representation. So, if you get a fifth of the votes, you get (roughly) a fifth of the seats. With proportional representation, Mulroy notes, “representatives are elected either at-large or in multi-member districts. With districting eliminated, gerrymandering becomes impossible.”

It is worth recognizing that Australia’s electoral rules do not necessarily lead to markedly different or more progressive policy outcomes. Notably, as NPQ pointed out earlier this month, the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia 57th of 57 countries in the strength of its climate polices, right behind the United States, which came in at 56th. Also, since 2013, Australia has been governed by various right-of-center leaders. In other words, changing the rules doesn’t necessarily change which political party wins, because the parties adjust to the rules.

The central matter, as NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez puts it, remains to build a cult of democracy—and, without meeting the cultural organizing challenge she outlines, no set of electoral rules will get you there. Still, designing voting and representative institutions to encourage participation, rather than discourage it, would be a welcome first step.—Steve Dubb