The long lines, annoying party workers and the smell of a democracy sausage are experiences that united every adult Australian less than two short weeks ago. We might not have all been happy about it: but we had to go through the ritual. After spending eternity in a queue, seemingly the only thing longer than it is the Senate ballot that you get given at the front. You get the House paper listing two or three people whose views aren’t heinous, and several whose are. All in all it’s not an exhilarating experience. But everyone, uh, enjoying this experience is priceless. It is instrumental in keeping us from going the way of our American and British friends, whose communities and political system are growing a deep division and distrust.
A fundamental theory of political economics is the median voter theorem. This theorem posits that in a two-party system, parties tend toward similar centrist policies in order to capture the most votes possible. It places all voters on a continuum between left and right wing views. The frequency distribution of these voters takes a shape similar to a normal distribution: that is, there are more voters in the middle of the continuum than on the extremes. The ‘median voter’ is the person in the middle of the distribution: the person with the most centrist views.
Each elector votes for the party with views most similar to his or her own, and whichever party receives the most votes wins Government. This theory’s takeaway is that the party who wins the ‘median voter’ wins the election; to win the median voter, the party must have won at least 50% of the vote.
This result means that parties have an incentive to move toward the political centre. More votes can be won by moving closer to the median voter. In a nod to game theory, if political parties derive utility solely from winning office then each ideological position (or strategy) which is not that of the median voter is dominated by the median voter’s position. Taken to its theoretical conclusion, this predicts that the two parties will have indistinguishable ideologies in the perfect political centre, and remain there in a Nash equilibrium.
This mightn’t seem like an ideal outcome; it isn’t. Luckily, the outcome changes a little if we assume that parties also derive some utility from the ideological position itself. Depending on the weight given to ideology, parties may end up close to the centre, but not being replicas of each other. This is a more desirable outcome: there is a genuine choice presented to voters, but the parties form consensus on important issues and there is no deep divide on fundamental problems.
However, this model further changes when the voters change. The above conclusions are dependant on everyone voting. In systems where voting is optional, parties need to consider what they call ‘energising the base’. This is essentially promoting policy which is notably left- or right-wing, to motivate the subset of voters on their side of politics to go to the polls and vote. In these jurisdictions, if parties focus too much on consensus and moderate policies, their ‘base’ does not turn out to vote for them. That party then loses to their opponent.
Additionally, centrist voters have less incentive to vote; both parties are a significant distance from the voter in ideology, so he/she gains no significant extra utility from either winning power. These voters essentially see the parties as “almost as bad as each other”. Each may have a small preference between the parties, but not enough so as to make voting worthwhile. Without these ‘median voters’ participating in the elections, parties are not punished for abandoning the middle-ground and political consensus. Rather, they are rewarded by the more far-left or -right segments of society with these electors’ votes. This incentivises harsh political rhetoric and combativeness. Parties’ bases respond more enthusiastically to their politicians taking extreme stances than when those politicians seek compromise and consensus.
The practical outcomes of this structure are evident. The United States has a deep political divide and exists in an age of hyper-partisanship which is only getting worse. The United Kingdom—once the vanguard of considered and deliberate democracy—is not faring much better. The voters who are vehemently conservative or progressive are those who decide elections, because the ‘median citizens’ simply do not turn up to vote often enough.
Such is the pitfall of non-compulsory voting. The bell curve of voters splits into two diametrically opposed groups, rather than one centred on the political middle ground. In Australia, whether they like it or not, the median voters are required by law to vote (along with all other adult citizens). Although there may be some widening of the political divide at present—even in Australia—we have avoided effects anywhere near as extreme as some other major democracies. This is in no small part due to these non- rusted-on voters having their say (admittedly with some other factors at play).
Yes, the experience of voting itself may be frustrating. It’s probably not how many people would choose to spend their precious weekend hours. However, the outcomes speak for themselves. So by all means: grunt, groan, and draw risqué images on your ballot paper. But while you’re doing it, take a second to think about why we have to do this. If even that is no solace, then at least you can enjoy a democracy sausage on your way out.