Mandatory Voting Won’t Cure Political Polarization
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Compulsory voting would make everything better, right?
Each U.S. election generates ample moaning about the outsized influence of the relatively activist people who come out to vote, and wistful thoughts about how to do things better. This is amplified in the era of Donald Trump, Brexit and the rise of far-right parties in Europe.
Invariably, people point to Australia, where voting is mandatory and shirkers are fined. Wouldn’t this bring out all the reasonable, centrist types who don’t otherwise make it to the polls? Couldn’t everyone then achieve political and economic nirvana, with no more recessions, populist dysfunction or legislative gridlock?
Sorry to break it to you: It’s an illusion. Granted, Australia has some inspired leaders, such as Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe. But its two-party system is under great strain. Minor and fringe parties are attracting more support, some peddling cultural grievances and anti-globalist ideology. There’s also a widening split between how urban and rural residents view the world.
Australia isn’t the only country with compulsory voting. Another big one is Brazil, which has a history of military rule and just elected far-right tough guy Jair Bolsonaro as president. No role model there.
Compulsory voting might mask troubling trends, but it doesn’t make them go away. In Australia’s 2016 federal election, minor parties received more votes than at any time since World War II. The country has also had two governments with no majority in the House of Representatives in the past decade. When the ruling group must depend on small parties or a gaggle of independents to pass bills, running the nation is a tricky business. The inability to present a distinct governing or national narrative leaves voters disillusioned.
Even in the absence of a recession, Australia has gone through five prime ministers since 2007 (depending on how you do the math). Prosperity doesn’t appear to lead to greater consensus: As John Daley from the Grattan Institute has noted, support for minor political parties has jumped during periods of strong wage growth.
Not all the minor players are wing nuts. Most of the independents who matter in the House of Representatives are pretty mainstream in their views. Their presence reflects a growing distaste for the two main party blocs, which broadly resemble the Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S. But in the Senate, voters are in full-scale revolt. The upper chamber is fertile ground for nativists, populists and talk-radio hosts.
In a recent study, titled “A Crisis of Trust, the Rise of Protest Politics in Australia,” Daley and co-author Danielle Wood write that the fringe groups have little coherent to say on economics or inequality, usually cited as wellsprings of their support. If there’s a common notion, it’s — brace yourself — a “drain the swamp” mentality. A perceived loss of cultural identity has also driven the urban-rural divide and made immigration and trade easy targets.
In short, compulsory voting is no magic elixir. It certainly hasn’t prevented polarization in Australia. Look deeper for a cure.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Daniel Moss writes and edits articles on economics for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.
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