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Presentations of the history of Australian democracy inevitably dwell on the innovative and early democratic practices of the colonies and, later, the nation. Compulsory voting is typically placed in this frame. This article challenges three key pillars of the accepted narrative of the Australian adoption of compulsory voting by placing nineteenth-century debates over the mandatory franchise in the Australian colonies in the context of other similar democracies in North America. It shows that compulsory voting debates in the colonies were contentious, protracted and motivated by negative experiences of democracy and a desire to limit or order democracy to ensure that engaged minorities did not overwhelm an apathetic majority.