Compulsory Enrolment Begot Compulsory Voting

by John Hirst

I am unusual in being opposed to compulsory voting. Most enlightened and well-informed people are in favour of it. You’re probably in favour of it – even though you’re connected to CIS which believes in liberty. This policy makes Australia very distinctive among English-speaking democracies. There are arguments for compulsory voting – but whatever they are, they would have no chance of acceptance in the UK, the USA, New Zealand or Canada.


Compulsory voting was introduced first in Queensland in 1914; then in the Commonwealth in 1924; then in the other states, with South Australia the last to fall into line in 1942.

Contrary to popular belief, compulsory voting was not introduced because Australians were losing interest in voting. When first introduced in Queensland 75% of the people had voted at the previous election, the best turn-out at State elections at that time.

The Liberal government that introduced it faced almost certain defeat at the 1915 elections and Labor looked set to win a majority of seats for the first time. The Liberals considered that one of their disadvantages was that Labor was better at getting its supporters to the polling booths. This was at the time when Labor had thousands of campaign-workers devoted to the cause. The Liberals planned to even things up by having the State order voters to the polls.

Labor in Queensland did not oppose the introduction of compulsory voting. It went on to win the 1915 election which made it think quite well of it. Compulsory voting quickly became part of Labor’s national platform. The advantage to the parties of compulsory voting was that they would not have to spend money and effort in getting people to the polls. ‘Getting out the vote’ would become the government’s business.

Compulsory voting came to mind not because of change in turn-out figures. It was seen as the natural extension of compulsory enrolment in which Australia was also a pioneer. The Commonwealth had adopted it in 1911 just four years before Queensland moved to compulsory voting.

The first Commonwealth elections in 1901 were conducted on the franchise of the different States, using the State electoral rolls. A uniform Commonwealth franchise was set in 1902. It included votes for women (at that stage law in only two of the States) and in other respects was for the white population more generous than State law. The electoral rolls of the States clearly could not be used for the next Commonwealth election. The Commonwealth had to create its own.

The new Commonwealth law did not make enrolment to vote compulsory, but that new Commonwealth government was worried that too few people would enrol. What if it put on a national election and few people turned up? The government decided itself to enrol the people. The prime minister got the agreement of the State premiers for the police to be used for the job. Over several months in1903 policemen went from house to house, to every house in the island continent, collecting names for the first Commonwealth electoral roll.

To use the police for this job was not unusual in Australia. The police were the only officers of the Colonial governments who were located in every district. Those omni-competent governments turned the police into omni-competent administrators. They collected statistics, inspected dairies, checked on school attendance, and buried paupers. In some States they had also collected names for the electoral rolls.

The police did a good job. But of course they missed some people. The lists went on public display and if your name had been missed you could apply to be included.  Few bothered to check; people assumed that it was the job of the police to secure them the vote. On election day there were always some people complaining that they had been denied the vote because their name was not on the roll.

The mistakes were not simply due to the police. The lists were re-done every year, but before they had been collected and printed, thousands of people had moved house. The population was very mobile. Much of the work in the country was seasonal and in the cities a large proportion of the population moved house every year.

The Commonwealth Electoral Office wanted to make people responsible for reporting changes in their address.  It recommended that enrolment become compulsory. The Labor government of Andrew Fisher accepted the recommendation and passed a law for compulsory enrolment in 1911.

To get the new system started the police were called in again. They visited every house and got each elector to fill in an electoral card with their personal details. The cards were now to form the master roll. When electors moved house, they had to send in a new card. If they did not do so, they were to be fined.

But how would the Commonwealth Electoral Office know if people had moved house? It appointed spies. In cities and towns they were the postmen; in the countryside the police. They sent regular reports of comings and goings to the Commonwealth Electoral Office. They also distributed electoral cards to new-comers on their beat and encouraged them to send them in. When the Commonwealth Electoral Office got reports from their spies, it checked to see if new-comers had sent in their card. If they had not, they were asked to explain why. If they did not offer a good excuse, the Chief Electoral Officer fined them. In 1923, 27,000 people were fined; in 1924, 38,000.

Once the Commonwealth government had taken the responsibility of enrolling the people, it was only a small step to force the people to supply the information to make the government’s records as accurate as possible. It was only another small step from compulsory enrolment to compulsory voting. In 1911 several politicians were ready to take it. They asked what was the point of getting everyone on the roll, if they did not bother to vote. If Federal parliament was ready to force people to do their civic duty as regards enrolment, why not force them to perform the higher duty of voting?

In Australia no new matter of principle was involved in moving from compulsory enrolment to compulsory voting. It was said again and again that the second was the ‘natural corollary’ of the first.

So the idea of compelling people to vote was born. Its birth was not related to changes in the proportion of people voting. Compulsion was discussed as an option in the Federal parliament in 1911. At the 1910 Federal election the proportion of people voting had jumped to 62% from 51% in 1906 and 50% in 1903.

It was not an unusual apathy about voting that led to the introduction of compulsory voting. That should give us confidence that Australians would vote in reasonable numbers without compulsion. After all these years the habit should be ingrained. On the other hand, what chance has the anti-compulsion cause got, given the past willingness of the Australian people to succumb to the imperatives of bureaucracy and the convenience of political parties? Opinion polls record that over 70% of the people are in favour of compulsion. If all those people voted voluntarily that would be a respectable turn-out. But Australians seemingly are happy to be compelled to vote.

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