Is it time for compulsory voting in student elections?

To meet the challenges of an increasingly disconnected campus, compulsory voting could increase student engagement and participation in campus life.

Art by Neave Taylor.

The benefits and detriments of compulsory voting in Australia is an ongoing debate. Once filled with vigour, it is now tired and relegated to Year 7 debate classrooms. It is agreed that compulsory voting is a key step in the path to eliminating voter suppression and engaging voters — ultimately, it is one factor that sustains a healthy democracy. 

In many ways, a university is a microcosm of a democracy — especially when USU or SRC voting season rolls around, and corflutes become as commonplace to Eastern Avenue as the ibis. However, if the University purports itself to be a democracy, it is a very bad one. 

In last year’s USU board elections, only 7% of the University population cast a vote. Even last year’s SRC elections, which were lauded with having the largest number of votes for an SRC contest, only engaged a paltry 13% of the undergraduates who set foot on campus. This is pretty indictable, considering voting takes place online and the ballot is straightforward, taking no more than two minutes. In fact, since the rollout of online voting, many universities have seen a strong downturn in votes and interest.

Compulsory voting is a salve for this dwindling turnout. In the 1920s when voter turnout was in steep decline, the Australian government introduced compulsory voting. The impacts were immediate, with a rise from 60% to 91% engagement by the next election. Although compulsory voting is a panacea we can implement, we must also ponder why so few students darken the polling booth door in the first place. 

Yes, students have busy schedules, but more glaringly, most have little understanding of what their student representatives do for them. Student politicians are viewed as self-aggrandising, but the underlying feeling of the student body is ignorance more than resentment or bitterness. 

We encounter similar issues on a broader scale in countries with voluntary voting. In the United States, for example, a significant amount of money and resources is funnelled into merely encouraging citizens to go and vote in the first place. Once voting is made compulsory, this fund could be repurposed to educate citizens on candidates’ politics and the importance of informed decision making. In the same vein, it is incumbent on each candidate to ensure their audience understands their politics, but compulsory voting breaks down possible barriers to this because the audience is more compelled to engage.

Unfortunately, there is one large obstacle that stymies our journey to enfranchisement and obscures our vision of the future. Since 2005, universities have subscribed to a policy of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), meaning that not all enrolled students are automatically a member of their student unions. The Liberal government justified this union-bashing law by touting buzzwords of “freedom of association” and “liberty”, completely undermining  poorly-funded student organisations and screwing the final nails in their coffins. 

A University under VSU is nothing but moribund – campus life is drained of its colour and its institutions embody a sickening pallor. The underlying truth remains that the Government is reluctant to fund activist organisations, given these are the very ones that will hold it accountable in grassroots campaigns. Given recent attacks on higher education such as fee hikes and job cuts, it is painstakingly clear that this accountability is needed more than ever. 

SRC President Lauren Lancaster evokes the struggle of directing a student-focussed organisation that asphyxiates without compulsory student unionism (CSU). 

“When students are directly funding their union”, she says, “they become invested in their work and empowered to vote in their elections. We suffer currently from horrific union density amongst young people, and worse, a lack of knowledge as to what unions actually do for us. When we are beholden to the funding [whim] of the university, we are a weaker organisation… and vulnerable to funding cuts and interference at any time”. 

The SRC, alongside USyd’s other unions, boasts a wide range of support and advocacy services for students, ranging from legal aid to activist collectives. If students know they are directly paying for them, this encourages them to explore these services rather than view them at a distance. The paper you’re currently holding (or scrolling through) itself is dependent on the financial support of a student union, being printed by the SRC. VSU forces its reliance on university management rather than student leaders, antithetical to the principles of an independent and radical press. 

The argument that VSU relieves financial burdens on students is an inimical sham used to justify vapid rhetoric. Given that student unions rely on some financial support to survive, the money once collected by compulsory unionism is now gained in the form of the “Student Services Amenities Fee”, which was introduced under the Gillard government. Under CSU, fees travelled straight from students’ pockets to student unions. Now, the middleman of the University complicates things. Although students have to reach into their pockets for a similar amount, its distribution lacks transparency, with most students unsure and less involved in where this money is allocated.

The concepts of CSU and compulsory voting are synergetic as much as they rely upon the other. Compulsory voting would likely boost election turnout in concordance with CSU’s impact on engagement with unions. CSU is vital to administering a compulsory voting scheme, and compulsory voting would aid CSU’s rollout. 2019-20 Board Director Maya Eswaran comments on the symbiotic relationship between both schemes: “Although formidable attempts have been made to increase voter turnout since VSU, elections are simply not as representative as they used to be. To meet all the challenges of an increasingly disaggregated and disconnected campus, compulsory voting could increase student engagement and participation in campus life. A more engaged student body is better able to demand what it wants and needs, and in turn the USU can provide that.”

As students, we want two things: to enjoy university ourselves, and to pave the way for a future filled with activism and a colourful campus life, reminiscent of what has been enjoyed by the generations that came before us. I am reminded of this each time I flick through the archives and pore over a prehistoric and tattered student publication of the past. Although each of us punctuate Sydney University’s history for only the briefest moment, student politics and university life is a continuum. It is up to us to begin writing the words of a reinvigorated campus life before passing on the pen.