Do I have to vote?
You have to turn up to the polling station and have your name checked off. You have to take your papers and make a mark on your papers. Because voting is private there is in practice no mechanism to enforce or require you to vote 'properly'.
Why do I have to vote?
The Commonwealth first introduced compulsory enrollment as a voter in Australia in 1911. According to ABC News in 1915 Queensland became the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to introduce compulsory voting, apparently after the then Liberal government became concerned that ALP shop stewards were more effective at "getting out the vote".
Quite simply the legislation requires that you to enrol and vote. This has been the subject of relatively recent debate, Aboriginal voters were not required to enrol or vote in federal elections until 1984. In 1996 the Joint Standing Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament on Electoral Matters recommended that compulsory voting be removed but for various reasons this was never actioned. In 2010 Mark Latham handed out blank voting papers exhorting voters to put in a blank donkey vote, and in 2013 the Queensland State Legislature released a discussion paper regarding voluntary voting in state elections.
What does the law say?
Failure to enrol to vote is an offence under section 101 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and you can be fined. Failure to vote at a federal election without a valid and sufficient reason is an offence under section 245 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. You are required to pay a $20 penalty.
Thanks to the data mining provisions instituted by the government in 2013, government agencies cross check all their databases and enrol you once you enter the system. Most people are now automatically enrolled for all elections (local, state and federal) once they are old enough and in the government system. The more likely fine that you might receive is a fine for failing to vote. In New South Wales it is also compulsory to enrol and vote in State and Local elections, though as previously mentioned you are probably already enrolled.
What happens if I don't vote?
If you don't vote you will be issued with a fine. If you don't pay the fine (perhaps you didn't receive it) then you will receive a penalty notice. If you don't pay the penalty notice then the government can issue various punishments, including suspending your driving licence.
How do I know if an election is on?
Sometimes this is difficult. You would have to be a Luddite hermit to miss the advertising surrounding a federal election but local elections or by-elections can happen with seemingly little advertising.
The safest thing is to double check your enrollment details online, and register for reminders if you have to vote. You can enter your mobile number and/or email address for a reminder. You will have to 'agree' to the Electoral Commission sharing your information with other agencies, but they already do that anyway. Register for reminders and avoid any complications for elections that you didn't realise were occurring.
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