Aussies flock to the polls _ because they have to

SYDNEY (AP) — Australians on Saturday were facing an election choice of two relatively unpopular and uninspiring leaders. But they were flocking to the polls, nonetheless — because, by law, they have to.

More than 14.7 million of Australia’s population of 23 million are enrolled to vote in Saturday’s election, which pits the ruling center-left Labor Party against the conservative Liberal Party -led opposition. With a general lack of enthusiasm plaguing both parties’ leaders, low voter turnout could be expected in most other countries. But not Down Under.

That’s because Australia is one of a handful of countries in which voting is mandatory. Those who fail to vote face a fine of up to 50 Australian dollars ($46).

“The view in Australia is that it’s not the interested, the engaged, who win elections. It’s the disengaged,” Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s election analyst Antony Green said.

“There’s a vast proportion of the electorate, maybe a third of the electorate, who in every other country in the world probably wouldn’t bother voting,” he added. “In Australia, they all vote.”

Engaging the disengaged is the complex skill of Australian politics. And with more than 15 percent of voters undecided in the final week of the campaign, it’s a skill that’s polished all the way to polling day.

In general, most Australians have no problem with compulsory voting; polls consistently show a large majority support it. Those in favor of the practice, which has been in place since 1924, argue that voting is a civic duty. Those against it brand it undemocratic.

Asked whether Prime Minister Kevin Rudd or opposition leader Tony Abbott would make a better national leader, Sydney resident Penelope Chapple paused, laughed and replied: “Neither.” Still, she was happy to vote on Saturday and is equally happy that all Aussies are required to do so.

“I think we are very fortunate to live in a democracy and I think we should take it quite seriously that we do get the opportunity to have a vote,” she said.

In an interview earlier this year, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard cited the United States’ voluntary voting system as one reason why stricter gun control measures failed to pass Congress.

“Compulsory voting is a precious, precious thing and it makes our politics the politics of the mainstream,” Gillard told Sydney’s Inner West Courier. “If you ask yourself the question how come? Well, in the U.S. they can’t have rational gun laws. A big explanation of that is voluntary voting, where small, highly motivated minorities can distort a whole political debate.”

___Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk contributed to this report from Canberra, Australia.

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