A common denominator in modern liberal democracies is the vote. Yet, this simple four letter word hides enormous complexity and variation. American students of comparative politics would do well to pay careful attention to the looming poll in Australia, slated for August 21.
With a short lead into the election, compulsory voting, and preferential voting, the Australian election serves as a reminder of just how different democratic elections can be.
Normal election cycles for the Australian Parliament are three years in length, though Parliament can be dissolved sooner. Unlike their American counterpart, they are not rigidly tied to a particular day in November. Normally elections are for the members of the House of Representatives and half the Senate. Unless of course a double dissolution is called, in the case of there being a deadlock in passing a piece of legislation between the House and Senate. The kickoff for an election can be very short. In the coming Australian election the Prime Minister did not visit the Governor General seeking a dissolution of Parliament until July 17 (Parliament wasn't formally prorogued until July 19). With that act the election campaign formally begins. Unlike the US, where campaigns are years long, the Australian one is lightning fast.
Key for most campaigns in the US is voter turnout. American campaigns try and urge voters out of their daily routines in order that they might vote. In Australia voter turnout is not an issue. Why? The answer is compulsory voting. Citizens who fail to attend the polls in Australia may be fined for non-attendance at the polls. Australia is not alone in making voting compulsory, but I would venture to say that few do it as well as the Aussies. If you read the Wiki page on compulsory voting you'll note there are 32 countries with compulsory voting, and out of those only 14 enforce the law. Those that enforce compulsory voting are not renown for their allegiance to democratic principles with the notable exception of Australia.
The final comparative point about Australian voting concerns 'preferences'. Anybody following the Australian news would be struck by the mention of preferences. Unlike the US, where an elector pulls a lever or ticks a box for one candidate, in Australia voters numerate the House candidates in order of preference. So, if there are five candidates in an election, the voter numbers them one through five, in order of preference. If no candidate has an outright majority of votes, voter preferences are used to indicate the most preferred candidate. Sound confusing? It is.
In the Senate, proportional representation is used. Each Australian state has six senators. The top vote winners take Senate seats, and therefore, it is possible for candidates representing very small consistencies to win a seat in the Senate.
If you want to learn more about the Australian electoral system visit the Australian Electoral Commission's website. They have some excellent materials that explain the mechanics of voting in Australia.
This fall freshman at Georgetown will have an opportunity to study the politics of Australia. They will have an opportunity to study the freshly completed electoral process. It should be a fun semester for all!