Australia's Compulsory Voting May Not Curb Polarization

(Bloomberg View) -- Can coercing voter turnout save democracy?  

Some who were dismayed by the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election raised that possibility – considering that in both cases, large portions of the eligible population didn’t vote.

The theory is this: If everybody casts a ballot, there’s less need for each side to motivate the base, because turnout isn’t an issue. This would avoid extremism and reduce polarization, by forcing elections to be fought in the center over issues that matter most to a majority of the population. It’s a laudable idea. Advocates often point to Australia’s compulsory voting, the law of the land since 1924, as proof of concept.

Turns out it’s not so simple. Compulsory voting in Australia hasn’t diminished polarization; it’s merely masked it. That’s one of the sobering conclusions reached by Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton, who analyzed electoral data and summarized their work in a Sydney Morning Herald article this month. Both have the benefit of an insider’s perspective, having been aides to former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Among other findings: In 2016 only one in 10 members of parliament described themselves as “moderate” -- regardless of whether they represent the two main political blocs or fringe parties -- compared with more than one in three in 1996. Forty-two percent of overall voters call themselves “centrist,” down from 54 percent in 1993. Two-thirds of the people who voted for minor parties now “strongly” support them, whereas it used to be merely a protest vote. Support for democracy itself is waning.  

Another trendy idea is in jeopardy. From a global perspective, it’s often said populist revolts can be partly blamed on the slump of 2008-2009 and the moderate recovery that followed. The Australian data discredit this because the country didn’t suffer a recession. The economy has been growing for 26 years.

Harris and Charlton looked hard for any sign that the white working class – an aggrieved group credited for Brexit and Donald Trump’s election -- was especially embittered. What they found was that unskilled men were just as disillusioned as anyone else, Charlton told me in an interview last week. Moreover, unskilled men supported fringe or single-issue parties in the same proportion as higher-income voters.

I’ve long been somewhat suspicious of the idea that a so-called poor economy explained Trump. The unemployment rate in Wisconsin on Election Day 2016 was 3.9 percent, well below the national average of 4.9 percent. The state, one of the deciding arenas of 2016 that put him over the top, only very narrowly went for Trump. Whatever motivated a slight majority of Wisconsin voters to rock the status quo was not simply the economy.

We shouldn’t blame social media either for making governing harder, says Charlton. Technology and media just mirror broader economic and social forces.

Maybe the present state of affairs isn’t the aberration, but the norm, and the sense of cohesiveness many felt existed through much of the past century was the aberration. Democracies may be headed back toward a more tribal system of managing our affairs. Compulsory voting was a worthy experiment, but Australia shows it’s no sure 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 View. 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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