By Prasuna Reddy, Director of Social Issues and Susie Burke, APS Research Officer
It’s election year in more ways than one, and in more places than just Australia! There have already been elections in many parts of the world, and the world’s largest democracy, India, with 605 million eligible voters, is going through one now. Australia and Indonesia will have elections later in the year; and in November, America goes to the poll in the crucial, and much anticipated, presidential elections. And of course, in October this year, there are the annual APS elections!
This article is a call to members to help us understand a puzzling phenomenon – the low voter participation at APS elections – and to increase the numbers of members who participate in APS elections. Look at the figures tabled below for voter numbers pertaining to the last three APS elections.
APS Voter Numbers
|Year||No. of APS voters eligible
|No. of APS voters who did vote||Per cent
|Per cent of informal votes|
We have shown improvement in our record of informal votes; our voter turnout, though, has been remarkably low for a Society of our size. In September 2004, we are likely to have candidates contesting for several APS Board positions, including President. Is there anything we can do to improve voter participation in this year’s APS elections? Or, should we settle for the possibility that abstention at APS elections is merely a reflection of a general trend, over recent years, of the decline in the levels of participation in elections in democratic societies?
The Electoral Commission statistics for the United Kingdom show that turnout at the June 2001 general election was only 59.4 per cent, and even lower at local elections. In the United States Presidential election in November 2000, only 55 per cent of the voting–age population voted. Australia looks much better in terms of voter participation: in the 2001 National elections, the Australian Electoral Commission claims voter turnout was 95 per cent.
Of course, the major reason for this is that Australia has compulsory voting, which serves to maintain high voting turnout. Remember, it is only registration and attendance at a polling place that is compulsory; citizens still have the choice of participation. Would voter turnout in Australia be lower if we did not use mandatory voting? In the Australian Election Study (Jones, McAllister & Gow, 1996), in response to the question “Would you have voted in the election if voting had not been compulsory?”, 67 per cent of respondents said they would “definitely” vote. Even without resorting to debate about the relationship between intention and behaviour, this might be an optimistic figure. Indeed, if we take APS voting rates as an indication of interest in voluntary voting, it is probably not a good idea for Australia to alter its compulsory voting system.
Why don’t some people vote?
In the 2000 US election, of the 130 million people who registered to vote, 14 per cent did not actually vote (US Census Bureau, 2002). The most common reasons given for not voting were:
How relevant are these reasons for members who did not vote in the APS elections? We canvassed the views of the current Board of Directors; what had they heard from APS members about voter participation? One set of problems does seem to involve confusion or uncertainty about voting procedures. For instance, some members did not know where to find descriptions of candidates or the voting papers. Others were uncertain about how to vote or when to vote. Others intended to vote, but forgot, or could not find a postage stamp, or lost the ballot papers. We have addressed some of these concerns in the documents for this year’s APS election:
These problems are, however, minor ones. By far, the most significant barrier to voter participation seems to be not knowing enough about the positions that are open for election, or about the candidates, to feel that one can make an informed decision. A related issue is the small number of candidates for each position. We usually have only one or two nominations for each position; members may be reluctant to nominate without sufficient knowledge about the duties, tasks, and time commitments of a Director’s position. What can be done about these concerns?
Often, even reading the detailed description provided by the candidate doesn’t seem to be enough to differentiate between the merits of different candidates. Members are also welcome to ask questions about tasks and candidates from their colleagues, peers, APS networks, the APS National Office, or consider contacting the candidate him or herself to ask their point of view or position on issues that you consider important. Directors should, however, be considered as capable of representing the best interests of the Society at large, not special groups or positions.
While these efforts may make voting easier and the process more understandable, we have not adequately addressed the most difficult issue in voter participation in any election – apathy. Voluntary abstention may reflect an individual’s lack of knowledge or a lack of interest with electoral processes. We might improve knowledge, but it does not follow that informed people will show a burning desire to vote.
How can we make voting in APS elections more appealing? The question is an important one for the APS and this Directorate in particular. Through the Directorate of Social Issues, we try to increase people’s awareness of issues that are important in our society, such as social exclusion, violations of human rights, and inequality. Some psychologists argue that working to advance human wellbeing in the public arena is a matter of professional responsibility. Elections provide a two–fold means of exercising such responsibility. On the one hand, voting is a form of active participation in the democratic process as a way of promoting democracy. Voting is also a form of active participation in the issues that affect us and the people around us. Having your say, whether through active participation in the APS, or through participation in the leadership of the Society, are both important ways that psychologists can make a difference in the public arena.
Here is an opportunity for you to contribute to the collective wisdom of the Society, including an understanding of why members do or do not vote in APS elections. Please send your letters to: firstname.lastname@example.org.