- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

SYDNEY, Australia — Voter apathy is not expected to depress the turnout for parliamentary elections next month in Australia, where failure to vote is punishable with a fine of about $14.

“I find it ironic that a so-called democracy actually compels people to vote,” said Ross Fitzgerald, an emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University in Queensland and a longtime advocate of voluntary voting.

Not only do people have to vote under Australian law, but protest votes are not recognized. It’s illegal to advocate an “informal” vote, or a deliberate spoiling of the ballot, he said.

Australia, with 13 million eligible voters, is one of only a few established Western democracies with compulsory voting. Belgium, Austria and Italy also have compulsory voting, though only Belgium enforces it, said Rodney Tiffen, an associate professor specializing in government and international relations at the University of Sydney.

That’s why Australia’s voter turnout has averaged 95 percent since 1990, compared to 64 percent in the United States and just under 70 percent in Britain, Mr. Tiffen said.

It was voter apathy after World War I that prompted the then-ruling conservative administration to introduce the legislation. Only 58 percent of the electorate went to the polls in the 1922 election, down from almost 78 percent in 1917.

While Americans were enjoying the Roaring ‘20s, Australians were trying to recover from prolonged drought and political disillusionment. In 1925, the year after the legislation was introduced, voter turnout jumped to 91 percent.

Over the decades, attempts to change the law have failed and now most people accept it.

“Australians have a great tendency to accept compulsion from the state if it’s viewed as being in the common good,” said Antony Green, an election analyst with the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Compulsory voting is certainly good for the nation’s finances. In the last federal election in November 2001, 40,000 citizens paid fines of 20 Australian dollars — worth about $14 at current exchange rates — for failing to vote, adding some $560,000 to government coffers.

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