Day 6

In Australia, voting is mandatory, easy and often fun. Is there a lesson for Canada?

Australians vote on Saturdays. Polling stations serve "democracy sausages" and host community events including bouncy castles and pony rides. Voter turnout is over 90 per cent, while in Canada it's below 70.

In May, more than 90 per cent of Australian voters showed up at the polls

Polling locations in Australia offer 'democracy sausages' for voters who cast a ballot — and with mandatory voting, the country's turnout rate is 95 per cent. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Originally published Oct. 18, 2019

While Canada struggles to get even 70 per cent of eligible voters to a poll on election day, Australia makes it mandatory — but also easy and even fun.

Down under, voters are treated to freshly barbecued "democracy" sausages and vendors sell handmade treats for charity while they exercise their democratic right.

Depending on the location, there are even activities for future voters tagging along with their parents.

"I went to one 10 years ago where they actually had set up, on the school grounds, a bouncy castle and ponies ... you could ride ponies," said Heather Anders, a mother from Adelaide, Australia, in an interview with Day 6.

In addition, elections are typically held on Saturdays.

Voting has been compulsory in Australia since 1924. Simply put, eligible voters must show up to a poll on election day. Once there, they can cast their vote for a candidate, select "none of the above" or even submit a blank ballot.

Election day is typically held on the weekend, ensuring the majority of voters can make it to a poll. (David Gray/Reuters)

That's led to high voter turnout in the country. During a federal election in May, nearly 91 per cent of eligible voters turned up to polls. 

"I think it's a brilliant thing that people in Australia [do]," said Keiran Kelly who hails from Adelaide, but now lives in London, U.K.

"Everyone gets to take part in the democracy process. It's something you grow up with."

Not low enough

Over the years, citizens and politicians alike have called on the Canadian government to make voting mandatory with little success.

But according to University of Ottawa constitutional law professor Michael Pal, turnout hasn't been low enough for governments to take it seriously.

"Once we have an election where turnout starts getting close to 50 per cent, or below 50 per cent ... then mandatory voting will become a big policy issue," Pal said in an interview. 

We've had a long tradition of … letting people decide if they want to cast a vote or not.- Michael Pal, constitutional law professor

In 2017, after pledging to consider the issue during the 2015 federal election campaign — an election that saw 68 per cent of eligible voters hit the polls — the Liberal government said they wouldn't move forward with changes.

"You'd have to pass an amendment to the Canada Elections Act, and there might be political hurdles in passing it through Parliament," Pal said.

"But the biggest challenge is probably not political will as much as the constitution."

Pal says that while the Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants us the right to vote, it doesn't grant the right to skip the ballot.

The right to not vote would ensure eligible voters, including some Indigenous people who conscientiously object to the federal government, have a legal exemption.

In Australia, those who skip the vote must provide a reason for their absence — sickness, religious exemption or conscientious objection are all accepted — or pay a small fine, typically amounting to less than $20.

A similar model could work in Canada, Pal says, adding that any penalties must be low to ensure voters who simply couldn't make it out aren't unduly burdened.

Election day holiday?

Still, for mandatory voting to work the government would need to make polls as accessible as possible, Pal says.

That doesn't necessarily mean Elections Canada needs to fire up a grill or offer pony rides, however. 

Voters in Australia can turn up at any polling location — not only one near their registered home address — to cast their ballot, for example.

While advocates say that mandatory voting could improve turnout in Canada, Michael Pal believes making voting easier is key. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Others, including Pal, have suggested election day could become a federal holiday, but perhaps simpler, is to offer greater access to advance polls. 

This week, Elections Canada reported a 29 per cent increase in votes cast during advance polls. This election featured 1,200 more early polling locations compared to 2015.

Ultimately, Pal says that mandatory voting is a "second-best option." 

"We've had a long tradition of … letting people decide if they want to cast a vote or not," Pal said. 

"More voter turnout is better than lower voter turnout, but giving people the choice is a good thing."

To hear more from voters about how mandatory voting work in Australia, download our podcast or click Listen above.


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